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North York Moors: Big ride

Steve Westlake
24 May 2016

The North York Moors my be less well trodden than England's other national parks, but the riding on offer is as challenging as it comes.

The editor of Cyclist is evidently a man of impeccable character and judgement. The classy magazine you hold in your hands could hardly exist unless this were so [Is it pay review time again? – Ed]. And yet, perhaps there is a seam of granite lurking beneath Pete Muir’s immaculate exterior, because the route for the ride we are tackling today is his creation from start to finish, and it’s a devil child that begins immediately with a slog up the steepest road in Britain. There’s not even a hint of a warm up: it’s clip in, turn left out of the car park, 30% gradient.

The Rosedale Chimney, as the near vertical stretch of tarmac is called, is one of only five climbs to receive a 10/10 difficulty rating in the book Britain’s 100 Greatest Climbs. It’s a challenge to be anticipated and relished by any cyclist and I’m fairly stoked, let’s say, about having the chance to tackle it. But maybe five minutes’ spinning beforehand would be nice.

‘The Chimney is actually steeper than the 1-in-3 signs say it is,’ chirps a cheery Christine, co-owner of the White Horse Farm Inn (Yorkshire’s Friendliest Pub 2012), which is located a quarter of the way up the climb – our starting point for the ride. ‘You’re not officially allowed to have public roads this steep for safety reasons, you see!’ she chortles as she lays down a hearty full English in front of me. Now, Christine seems like a genuinely lovely lady, but I’m sure I detect a glint of mischievous pleasure in her eyes.

The most amusing part of this whole scenario is that editor Pete is supposed to be attacking the route too, but due to an unfortunate incident involving some bicycle thieves we have only one steed available, and it’s in my size. So while I grapple with the Chimney and several other brutal climbs on today’s ride, Pete will be joining Juan the photographer in the comfort of the car.

On the rise

Breakfast complete, the time has come to man up. I clip in, savour two complete pedal rotations on the flat gravel driveway and then pitch my Trek skyward. The first thing to be seen is a blue road sign reading, ‘Rosedale Chimney Bank. Max gradient 1.3. Engage low gear’. I obey, and begin my encounter with the North York Moors. A left bend takes me towards the first of many cattle grids of the day, then along a short straight on which Pete and Juan overtake, engine straining and Juan grinning with glee and gesticulating encouragement. To the left is a postcard panorama of the Moors that, due the incline, I have plenty of time to ‘enjoy’, and for a second it distracts me from the imminent quad trauma. 

Then it’s into the Chimney’s two severely steep hairpin bends, the second of which exits, according to my Strava report later, into a momentary 56% gradient. That surely can’t be right, but it is the steepest part of the climb, and only three minutes into this day-long ride my heart is pounding north of 170bpm and I’m having to concentrate hard to stop myself panting like an overheating dog.

The gradient eases to a more gentle 20% and I tap out towards the top, with Juan’s motor drive keeping pace with my pulse from the hillside. It’s a hell of a start, but doing this climb so early has its benefits. It’s hard, but with box-fresh legs there’s never any doubt about getting to the top.

Chimney cleansing

Now the road stretches ahead with a welcome slight descent that allows me to gather my breath and up the pace by a factor of 10. The surface is appalling however, a rugged collage of repair upon repair upon repair – but it doesn’t detract from the pleasure of getting some speed and distance in the bank. On either side is exposed moorland with purple heather in full bloom bisected by an empty, single-track road with zero traffic stretching straight into the distance. It will become a defining image of this moors ride. 

After a few kilometres the road’s rough surface suddenly becomes immaculate as I sweep through a lazy left-right over a small bridge at 45kmh. A flock of black sheep munching heather reminds me of the ale of the same name we were drinking at the bar last night. It’s an idyllic scene, and the Chimney is all-but forgotten.

Undulating countryside leads to the second bump of the day, the picturesque Spaunton Bank, and after a few more kilometres we’re into the sleepy and isolated village of Appleton-le-Moors where more sheep (white this time) lounge and nibble on the grass banks between the road and sandstone houses, untroubled by residents or cars. It feels like something from another age – a scene from Robin Hood. (You can see them on Google street view).

Juan and Pete speed ahead to scout for locations further along the route and I’m left to enjoy 20km of easy rolling farmland on the south east edge of the moors. This will be the only proper flat section of the day, so I treat it as a belated warm-up and take things easy.

After a short stretch on the B1257 I turn off towards Ampleforth and past the imposing school, which boasts Laurence Dallaglio, Julian Fellowes, Rupert Everett, Antony Gormley and Touching The Void mountaineer Joe Simpson as ex-pupils. The village is also home to Ampleforth Abbey, which, according to Catriona McLees from the Tourist Board, brews the only monastic beer in the country. At 7% abv and with 90km still to ride, I decide against troubling the tipsy monks for a pint.

The road zigzags up through Wass before the immense ruins of Byland Abbey loom up on the left, triggering my best 120-degree meerkat impression as I pass. It’s no surprise to see Pete and Juan in the car park opposite, and Juan jumps out and makes me do multiple ride-bys of the Abbey. I’m happy to oblige.

We enter the National Park once more and then take an easy-to-miss right turn onto White Horse Hill. After 35 relatively gentle kilometres I feel ready for the next challenge, and here it is – the second of today’s 100 Greatest Climbs – this one rated a mere 7/10. The climb itself is steep and rewarding, and much more memorable than the famous White Horse figure cut into the hillside that gives the climb its name. It was created by a local schoolmaster and his helpers in 1857 to mimic the prominent landmarks in more southerly parts of England. According to Catriona it had to be covered up during the war so as not to give German bombers extra navigational help. We, however, failed to spot it from 20 metres away…

Pete sums it up. ‘If the White Horse Inn is the friendliest pub, then this is Yorkshire’s most disappointing landmark,’ he says. We laugh but don’t argue. ‘On a clear day you can see it from the Dales!’ insists Catriona from the Tourist Board when I mention this to her later. 

High up on the moors now, the remaining 80km of the route has a profile that looks like a saw-edge. A fast 4km descent takes us across the River Rye and into Hawnby, which serves up a short, sharp 25% mid-village climb. There’s also a tea room here called ‘The Tea Room’, which the Cyclist team agrees not to mock. 

With the River Rye on our left, we’re now into a non-stop series of picturesque climbs and descents as we traverse across the path of the tributaries to the Rye, which have cut themselves deep into the landscape over millennia. A 20% sign indicates a fast and dangerous descent past farm entrances and sheep fields, with steep banks on either side that deposit mud and gravel into the road as it plunges down into Osmotherley. With the adrenaline from the descent still pumping in my veins we duck into The Coffee Pot cafe, which serves up a massive roast pork baguette crammed with enough calories to fuel me for the saw teeth to come.

As I munch away, Pete and Juan discuss the pictures we’ve amassed so far. ‘I think we need some more climbing shots,’ says Juan with a carefree smile. He won’t be disappointed.

First hill on the post-lunch horizon is Carlton Bank, the third of today’s 100 Greatest Climbs (7/10), with an elevation gain of 200m over about 2km and featuring at least three severe kicks to test my resolve. The surface is terrible, but the view to my left is impressive enough to catch Juan’s attention. As I pass him on one of the steepest sections he calls after me, ‘Can we just do that a couple more times, and get out of the saddle…’ I’m sure I catch Pete chuckling from the drivers seat.

The next tooth of the profile saw is Clay Bank, a steady, laborious climb on the B1257, the only significant stretch of main road on the route. Then comes another gravelly, woody descent towards the final challenge of the ride. A cattle grid marks our re-entry to the moors proper and we approach what’s unofficially known as the Three Peaks, a series of climbs culminating in the longest of the day.

Laughing out loud

Juan and Pete are out of the car ahead discussing the terrain as I pull up beside them. ‘There are no decent flats here at all, are there?’ says Pete cheerily. ‘It’s bit like the housing shortage in the south of England,’ he adds, and they both laugh heartily. I simply look at them, and then turn to face the plunging and rising moorland ahead of me in all its undulating glory. ‘And there’s no recovery in sight!’ says Juan, and they almost collapse with mirth. Funny guys. 

As I’m steeling myself for the climbs, Juan is getting juicy about the scenery again and urges me to get out of the saddle and attack the next inclines. With 110km in my legs, any grimacing isn’t feigned for the cameras, but an exciting narrow descent and sharp turn through a ford and an immediate kick up into a scenic climb is the most exhilarating section of the ride and fires my adrenaline once more for run to home.

The final climb is a 4.5km drag with a couple of 20% sections that squeeze the last drops of power from my legs. If the signature view of an Alpine ride is a ribbon of harpins weaving into oblivion, the moors are typified by long, single-lane paths stretching unwaveringly to the horizon. There’s something deeply satisfying about the road’s honest, arrow-straight trajectory, but it also allows no room for comforting delusions that the end of the climb might be just around the next corner.

The last 5km is a high-speed descent back into Rosedale Abbey, before the short climb up the nursery slopes of the Chimney to the White Horse Farm Inn once again. Christine is there to greet us with a smile, and I feel like I’ve achieved something special, as do my legs. In spite of the merciless start, this is a real gem of a route: properly challenging with at least 12 climbs worthy of the name, combined with dramatic isolation and charming village life. I’d be happy to hop on the train and do it all again at a moment’s notice. Turns out Pete was right all along…

Do it yourself

Accommodation

The 16th century White Horse Farm Inn offers a friendly welcome, a stunning location, comfortable en-suite rooms and excellent beer and food. Prices start at £80 for a standard double, rising to £110 for the family room. Ask for a room at the front of the Inn to ensure a serene view when you crack the curtains. Did I mention that it’s located on the steepest road in Britain? Maybe once or twice. (whitehorserosedale.co.uk)

Getting there

Rosedale Abbey is plumb in the centre of the Moors so requires a car to get there. If you fancy a day trip (admittedly a fairly ambitious one), an alternative option is to switch the starting point to the west edge of the route and take a train to Thirsk – less than eight miles from the moors. (From London, some direct trains take under 2h 10m.)

Thanks

To Catriona from the North York Moors Tourist Board for copious assistance and advice. Christine and all the staff at the White Horse Farm Inn were relentlessly cheerful and welcoming. Also Big Bear Bikes (bigbearbikes.co.uk) in Pickering saved the day by lending us the Trek Domane when our bikes were stolen the day before the ride. Friendly and professional, they rent carbon bikes for £45 per day.

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