I wasn't altogether surprised when the guys from Vertebrate Publishing plumped for Blackamoor as the venue for our Out Of Office ride. John Barton and John Coefield (JB and JC) are busy guys with a number of projects in the pipeline including a new version of their Peak Bouldering Guide and a revamped edition of the South West Mountain Biking Guide.
JB and JC. Image - John Horscroft
Blackamoor is a mere pedal's throw from Sheffield where Vertebrate Publishing is based http://www.v-publishing.co.uk/ and is home to some of the best riding in the Peak District. Both JB and JC ride Blackamoor on a regular basis and have been doing so for years, testament to its enduring popularity in the Sheffield mountain bike scene. As we readied the bikes, I was treated to a litany of excuses from John's Barton and Coefield - 'haven't been out for a while, family life doesn't leave much time for riding, my bike's falling to bits' - all of which I took with a huge pinch of salt. I was pretty sure I was just about to get my arse kicked in a big way.
Starting at the foot of Blackamoor means a stiff climb from the outset with little opportunity for a warm-up. The main bridleway through Blackamoor rises steeply from a ford and doesn't stop climbing until the car park at Stony Ridge. As I strove desperately for traction, head down, thighs pumping, it quickly became apparent that JB is one of those guys who's just naturally fit, legs spinning effortlessly and setting a punishing pace. I hung on grimly while JC politely loitered on my back-wheel chattering away with no sign of breathlessness.
Thankfully, I managed to stop them in their tracks a third of the way up by interviewing them. It was at this point I suddenly decided to stop moaning to myself and thank my lucky stars. While the rest of the world was tied to a desk somewhere, I was out riding with the scent of heather in my nostrils. Blackamoor is an oasis of bio-diversity minutes from the city of Sheffield, heather and bilberry dotted with silver birch and dwarf oak where you can see red deer, curlew and goldcrest.
After our al fresco interview, the climb continued over mildly technical rocky ground. I'm no great fan of riding uphill, it's merely a means to a downhill end, but at least this was technical enough to take my mind off the pain. As the rockiness at last gave way to gentle pasture, I could get my breath back and chat. The Vertebrate guides are probably as comprehensive and authoritative as any in the country and I wondered where the idea had come from. JB admitted sheepishly that he'd originally come up with the idea as a means of keeping staff busy at his original venture, Vertebrate Graphics. Fed up with graphic designers continually pestering him for more work, he toyed with the idea of producing a mountain bike guide to the Peak District. Returning to old cycling haunts to research said book, he was astonished to see just how many people were out biking and realised that there really was a burgeoning market.
Image - John Coefield
Why do we need mountain bike guides though? Surely all you need is a map and a spirit of adventure? Typically, JB doesn't trot out a worthy mission statement full of buzz words like access, sustainability and sport for all instead admitting that one of his inspirations was Wainwright's Lake District walking guides, written simply because Wainwright wanted to record his travels. Vertebrate Publishing's vision is also simple, to produce the best guides they can and encourage riders to get out on their bikes and enjoy Britain's brilliant trails. I know from experience that it's all too easy to simply go where you know and guides can be a crucial catalyst for the rider who's stuck in a rut.
In 2007, JB hired JC to manage the publishing arm of the business. I'd known John Coefield for some time as a climber. It transpires that as a kid he was a keen biker and the move to VP had merely rekindled his love of mountain biking. JC has a well established reputation as a climbing photographer and has now turned his hand to shooting mountain biking, with superb results.
Image - John Coefield
At last, the top was in sight. Arriving at the Stony Ridge car park, we quickly decided that a temporary diversion onto neighbouring Totley Moor was called for. As we bowled along with the wind behind us, a classic Peak District panorama opened up. To the west, Mam Tor and Win Hill, to the north, Houndkirk Moor and distant Burbage Valley and to the east, extraordinarily verdant Sheffield, suburbs almost lost amongst the trees. The bridleway snakes through sedge and heather towards Moss Road, an ancient Byway all but destroyed by illegal 4x4 use. Thanks to the intervention of the Peak District National Park Authority, peace has returned to Totley Moor and only water-filled bomb holes remain as testament to the vandalism.
I was rapidly becoming aware that JC's youth had been well spent. You can see from a riders basic skills how good they're going to be when things speed up and his ability to pop a wheelie almost at will left little doubt that he'd be ripping along when the time came. Sure enough, as we flew down twisty singletrack back on to Blackamoor, I was aware that he was right on my wheel, always a dangerous sensation, driving me on to greater speed. Narrowly keeping the bike shiny side up, we careered along and the whoops of delight rang across the moor.
Image - John Coefield
Back at Stoney Ridge, we set up the bikes for the best bit of the ride. The track parallel to the A6187 Hathersage Road leads down to the Devil's Elbow Gate bridleway. Taken together, this constitutes one of the sweetest bits of singletrack in the Peak, by turns sinuous, rocky, rooty and continuously quick, it's a blast. Relatively flat initially, a certain amount of pedalling is required but the angle soon changes and before you can say brake fade, you're trying to stay relaxed as the speed increases and the technical challenges stack up. This is the very best of mountain biking, technicality at speed with new challenges at every turn, drifting into the natural berms with your heart in your mouth, roots that demand commitment and rock gardens where line choice is everything, the difference between a clean run and an embarrassing tumble into the bracken. Once again hotly pursued by JC, I narrowly avoided the ignominy of the latter and arrived at the bottom of the trail breathless, calves like balloons.
Which left only a gentle trundle back to the car. With such quality riding on their doorstep, it must be easy for the two John's to retain their enthusiasm for mountain biking because a quick spin on Blackamoor is the perfect antidote to any outbreak of the office blues.
Find out more about Vertebrate Publishing and the associated guidebooks at their website here - http://www.v-publishing.co.uk/
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