MTB Roots 4 of 6: Going Alpine in the Pennines

Article by Benji Haworth
Wednesday 19th October 2011
Over the past decade the sport of cycling has seen a huge increase in its number of participants, with more and more people taking to two wheels for commuting, exercise and adventure. The development of trail centres has helped thrust mountain biking to the top of the popularity pile: well maintained trails for all abilities, often with on-site facilities and waymarked routes make getting off-road on a bike easier now than ever. Trail centres have given rise to a new breed of biker who have learnt their sport on the well defined and marked trails of blue and red routes, but also who have never experienced the adventure of a quiet moor or mountain, the solitude and satisfaction that a day in the hills can bring.

Trail centres are fantastic resources but there is a danger that mountain bikers will never really ride ‘mountains' but base their experiences around tamed, manicured trails. Many will remember taking their bike off-road for the first time after scouring maps for bridleways, possible gems in their local landscape and revelling afterwards at their ‘discoveries'. This series aims to inspire all bikers, but especially those who haven't yet been able to fully experience the adventure of a UK mountain or moor.

What is Alpine style riding? Put bluntly, it's steep ups followed by steep downs. There's little in the way of contouring traverse trails. Alpine riding has its concentration and focus on bagging lots of technical descents in as swift a way as possible.

To put it a bit less bluntly, it's a type of riding where the preferred way to the top of the hill is the way that's the quickest possible. It's all about getting to the next descent as quick as possible. With this brevity-is-best mindset the climbs can be fairly smooth surfaced, indeed quite often the road way up the hill will be preferred. But that's not to say the climbs will be of a nice gradient. Far from it. The more direct, the better. Straight is great. So you will still be using your granny ring. A lot.

Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines 

Rams Clough 

The descents are the main goal of Alpine riding. And unlike the climbs, the name of the game is to get as much out of the hill as possible. Get your money's worth. Unlike a lot of mountain biking, achieving speed on descents is not actually that greatly prized. The British Alpine rider prefers either awkward, technical, 'picky' and 'thrutchy' ways down the hillside. Or they prefer gradual sloping trails with lots of flow and swoops that take their time to wring as much momentum and freewheeling out of the available gravity as possible.

Believe it or not there's a place in the UK where you can have a taste of Alpine riding. Obviously the descents aren't really anywhere near as long, but neither are the climbs (let's just pretend there's no such thing as chairlifts and gondolas in Europe). But the essential aspects of Alpine riding are achievable in the complex clefts of Calderdale, in the South Pennines.

Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines 

Great Rock 

In this area of the UK there's a definite sub-genre of riding and rider to be found. The riders have big forks at the front of the bikes. And big sticky front tyres. And big front disc rotors. Wide bars and short stems. Knee pads (stowed in Camelbaks during climbs). They often don't have more than one chainring up front, and they almost never have triple chainrings. A large outer chainring makes no sense in Calderdale. The climbs are too steep and the descents aren't fast enough. And you need as much ground clearance as you can get.

Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines 

Gorple Road 

These types of Calderdale riders are binary. They're either going up. Or they're coming down. Despite spending the whole day on their bike, they won't ever really go very far away from where they started. They're quite happy to 'mine' the same hill, or valley side, for trails all day long. For some mountain bikers this lack of 'going anywhere', with its attendant lack of flow and narrative, is deeply unattractive. And troubling. For some people it just feels a little bit too close to the elephant in the room; that riding mountain bikes is essentially pointless.

Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines 

High Brown Knoll 

But for the British Alpine rider, Calderdale is a little piece of heaven. To them, it's a condensing of why they ride bikes. They're not really interested in 'going anywhere'. Or covering miles. They want the next descent, the next obstacle, the next moment of thrill and conquer.

You could draw a fair analogy between ramblers and climbers. With normal mountain bikers being like ramblers and the Alpine riders being the climbers. It's about conquering technical challenges. Ideally as many as possible in one day.

 Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines

Pecket Well 

It's the unique combination of geology and history that makes Calderdale what it is. Especially around the 'Alpine rider' heartland of Hebden Bridge. Steep valley sides. Unsuitable for farming. Unsuitable for tree felling. And up until the canal was created, the bottom of the valley was a massive boggy marshland. So all the dinky domiciles and their attendant rights of way were strung along the valley sides. And then when the canal, the railway, and then the main roads, were established in the valley bottom, the old tracks and trails criss-crossing all over the valley sides were just left as they were. Some of the tracks were clearly more popular and established than others, as they're a bit wider. But they're now entertainingly dishevelled. The other less frequented tracks are much vaguer and can take some finding, but are well worth it if you like a technical challenge or two.

Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines 

 Rodwell End

Riding in Calderdale is a peculiar navigational challenge. It's best not to set your route in stone before you start. It's far better to make it up as you go along. Once you've completed one up-and-down, it's nice to pause and think of the sort of trail that you'd like to do next. There's usually a trail that ticks that box within fairly easy reach.

To give you a head start at designing your own way around Calderdale we've listed our 10 favourite ways up and our 10 favourite ways down. Pick a place to start and go from there. Join the dots.

 Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines

Beacon Hill


Top 10 Calderdale Climbs

1. Penny Steps, Mankinholes (Grid Ref SD 963231)

Going Alpine in the Peninnes MTB Roots 4 of 6 

A permissive bridleway made up of the narrow packhorse slabs that are very typical to the area. You'll wish it wasn't permitted to be a bridleway by the time you reach halfway. Traction is never an issue because the stone is like sandpaper. It'll be your legs and lungs to blame if you don't make it to the top.

2. Jack Bridge, Hebden Bridge (SD 984274)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Also known as Colden Clough. Apart from the hideously steep road at the start, this is actually one of the better ways up out of the valley. It can get a bit scrabbly towards the end but there's nothing too tricksy about it. Yet having said that, it's always a decently involving climb that you have to pay attention along.

3. The Buttress, Hebden Bridge (SD 992273)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

A slimy time machine. This cobbled way up (and it is very up) towards Heptonstall from Hebden Bridge is one of the remaining un-tarmaced byways around Hebden Bridge. If the steepness doesn't have you wheeling off the back of your bike, you might still fall victim to the lichen-coated cobbles and have a big rear wheel spin out.

4. Orchan Rocks, Lydgate (SD 923258)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6

Although Hebden Bridge gets all the press, it's the Todmorden end of the valley that contains the truly horrendous Calderdale ascents. This climb takes in a sequence of surfaces and gradients. Some are wide and easy-going, others are loose and lumpy and chain-snappingly steep. There's more of the latter towards the end. Unrelenting is the word.

5. Gorple Road, Heptonstall Moors (SD 933326)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

There's a sting in the tail to this one. Although it's not as sketchy as it once was, before the recent resurfacing work, the last section of this curvy climb away from Widdop Reservoir on to the bleak moor top will still demand an extra little bit of effort, just when you could do without it. Your reward for making it to the top is usually a chilling blast of wind in the face. Nice.

6. Knott Wood, Charlestown (SD 976268)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Although this climb is 50% tarmac and 50% fireroad, the tarmac is face-reddeningly steep and unfortunately slimy, and the fireroad goes on for just that bit too long than you're prepared for. If you can't face the fireroad finale after struggling up the sloppy tarmac, turn left down the hill for a fantastically nifty section of the Pennine Bridleway.

7. Old Chamber, Hebden Bridge (SD 997266)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

This is another climb that isn't technically off-road. But the nature of certain concrete sections and especially the latter cobbled sections are much more viable on a fat tyred bike with low gearing. A particularly 'efficient' way of getting on to the north end of Stoodley Fell. It looks hard when you look up at it, and it's actually harder than it looks.

8. Great Rock, Eastwood (964257)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

If you want to see just how stingy Yorkshire people can be, take a gander at this exercise in using as little road material as possible in getting to the top of the valley. Bar a little bend at the bottom it's a matter of heading straight up. It's all just about drivable in a car but the very last section of broken-up road and cobbles can catch you out on a bike, if you're still riding by that point.

9. Beacon Hill, Halifax (SE 099254)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

The route from Halifax train station up on to Beacon Hill is one of the oldest rights of way in the whole of Calderdale. It starts with a steep section of abandoned cobbled road before turning right and becoming narrower, slippier and even steeper. After crossing the road, the final section of bouldery singletrack requires impressive levels of commitment, skill and fitness.

10. Honey Hole, Todmorden (SD 936238)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Getting to Rake End above Walsden is difficult enough if you start from the Shepherd's Rest pub on the Mankinholes pub, but for the full leg-burning, brain-snapping experience you really need to start from Honey Hole road in Todmorden. Steep road, steeper road, steep farm track, brief respite, rubbly bridleway, then increasingly steep, full-body-workout, steppy packhorse trail to finish. Ouch.

Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines 

Valley Sides 


Top 10 Calderdale Descents

1. The Blue Pig, Heptonstall (SD 987282)

 Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6

A descent of three parts. The first starts with a brief but fun bit of narrow dirt singletrack before doubletracking, straight over the road in to the tricky and slippy waterbars and cobbles section, the final section is a cresta run with rocks and roots before a sweeping left bend hurls you on to more sketchy cobbles. All topped off with a bouldery finishing flourish. Never fails to entertain.

2. Pecket Well A, Pecket Well (SD 996294)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Roll-in from the road, straight into higgledy-piggledy packhorse. After a steep down and a brief up, the trail traverses a bit before the main meat of the descent. Wideish but bouldery, then narrow and curvy. Finishes with some hemmed in rough stuff alongside a drystone wall that spits you out at Hardcastle Crags road at the end. A great descent that offers rewards for all abilities.

3. Whirlaw Stones, Todmorden (SD 936261)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

One of the iconic Calderdale trails. Starting above the Stones with a splash and dash down Whirlaw Common the trail joins on to packhorse slabs that leave your forearms buzzing. After a speedy down and up, you begin an excellent piece of testing singletrack all the way into the golf club car park. Usually followed by Rodwell End (see below).

4. Gauxholme, Todmorden (SD 927235)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Calderdale has many trails which are technically 'white roads' or 'byways' on an O.S. map but on the ground are actually screamingly great sections of singletrack and technical trail. This track between Todmorden and Walsden is an infamous SatNav baffler. You'd be amazed at just how far a BMW driver will drive down this mental track before admitting defeat.

5. Pecket Well B, Pecket Well (SD 996294)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Starting from the same roll-in as Pecket Well A (above) this track doesn't last quite as long but it's arguably the more entertaining option. There's no uphill bits, or even flat bits. It's all deliciously descending singletrack with a handful of minor obstacles to tackle as you fly down it. One of those trails that you can never tire of no matter how familiar you become with it.

6. Stake Lane, Mytholmroyd (SE 019251)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Another bonkers byway. Marked on the O.S. map as a 'white road' this great off-road descent is somewhere where you can unleash all your suspension. Fast, loose, with some sudden bends and committing drops and jumps to catch you out and/or make you yelp with glee. It's well worth the stiff haul up Scout Road to get there.

7. High Brown Knoll, Pecket Well (SE 009303)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

If we're talking about descents then the trail doesn't really enter that category until you reach the second trig point. The dirt track should be avoided in the wet (it's horrid when soggy) but if the conditions are firm and fast, you're in for a highly engaging singletrack treat all the way over to Luddenden Dean.

8. Beacon Hill, Halifax (SE 104253)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

Yep, the same Beacon Hill trail as mentioned in the 'Top 10 Climbs' above. Just ridden the other way around. A tremendous view over Halifax and beyond demands your attention during the top section of gentle singletrack, then all of a sudden the trail dives into the bushes and becomes bouldery. Keep your eye on the ball for the cobbled section down into Halifax. It's claimed a few over the years.

9. Rams Clough, Worsthorne (SD 908322)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

A rare treat. It's a permissive bridleway. It's a dirt sheep-track that's a slaggy mucky mess for most of the year. It's a once-a-year sort of trail. If it's been dry for a while - or frozen - then this sliver of roller coaster rut is a blast to... er, blast along. You have to careful with timing your pedal strokes and make the most of your momentum. A connoisseur's trail.

10. Rodwell End, Eastwood (SD 951249)

Going Alpine in the Pennines Mtb Roots 4 of 6 

If you want more descending fun after doing Whirlaw Stones (why wouldn't you?) then zip along the road and pick any of the bridleways down Rodwell End. They all start with a thrillingly zippy bit of mini-clifftop singletrack before splintering into a few options. The classic, and still the best, is the zigzags from the farmyard down to the picnic site at the road at the bottom.

 Mtb Roots 4 of 6 - Alpine in the Pennines

Wirlaw Stones 


Recommended Kit

- A big sticky front tyre. A rear tyre that's big but not quite as sticky and knobbly.
- Wide handlebars. Give them a go. You'll be amazed at the extra control and security they offer on technical trails.
- Short stem. Something less than 80mm ideally. Less likely to go over the bars.
- Knee pads. Nothing too stiff or hard. Feel free to take them off during climbs.
- Climbing legs. Don't forget these.
- Full suspension bike is not entirely necessary but something with a biggish fork up front is nice.

 Click for Part 1 in the MTB Roots Series - Snowdon Ranger Path

Click for part 2 in the MTB Roots Series - Classic Lakeland Passes

 Click for part 3 in the MTB Roots Series - The Dark Peak 

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