The Mary Towneley Loop is 47 miles of bridleway that forms part of the Pennine Bridleway, and straddles the border of Yorkshire and Lancashire. I was expecting this to be like the White Chalk Hills UCX but a bit tougher – though the distance is pretty much the same there’s an extra 2000 feet of climbing. However “a bit tougher” is an understatement, as I was soon to find out.
After collecting the brevet card and listening to the rider briefing (“don’t ride like a knob”, “we’re at the bottom of the pecking order so be nice to horses and walkers”) I trundle off into the unknown. Properly unknown. I’m very aware that I’m riding in hills I have no knowledge of and I don’t have a map. It’s a national bridleway so it will be sign posted all the way round but I know from experience it’s still possible that a sign can be misinterpreted or missing. If I go the wrong way then I may struggle to get back on track. At least back home if I get lost I’ll recognise place names on signposts. Here I won’t even know what county I’m in, and historically Lancashire and Yorkshire are not the best two counties to muddle up. Fortunately I only go wrong a couple of times and luckily both times spot other riders to get me back on track.
The bridleway has many surfaces, most of the them a challenge to cyclocross tyres; setts, broken and worn causeway, cobbles, rocks, rubble, gravel, and mud. Fortunately I’m running 29er tyres on the Peregrine. This means I roll over stuff with less trouble than narrower tyres, however this also means I can pick up more speed and quite likely to find myself in trouble more often…particularly as I have an unerring ability to pick not the right line. They offer a lot of grip scrabbling over rock strewn climbs but can also be a bit draggy. Some of the riders I speak to on CX tyres are suffering a bit of discomfort due to running at higher pressures to avoid pinch flats, so I’m glad I opted for the 29ers.
The climbing is steep and when combined with really broken, stony surfaces makes much of it unrideable. Now this could have been due my riding skills (and quite frankly the weight of my Peregrine) but I saw superior riders with lightweight CX bikes shouldering them and walking the climbs. And the climbs go on and on and on…
After (quite) a while I was thinking I must be getting close to the first control, which was good as I was starting to feel tired and hungry. I check my phone and realise I’ve only covered 10 miles. Ten miles! In almost two hours. Sh*t, this is going to take longer than anticipated and I had better start eating and drinking more regularly. It turned out to be one of those rides where you feel constantly on the edge of bonking, no matter how much food you stuff in your face.
I eventually arrive at the first control and eat as much food as I dare and wash it down with a cup of tea. The next section of the ride is quite different, much more barren and desolate. Up on the moors there’s a strong feeling of latent isolation. Even though I can see houses scattered across the valleys or whole towns, at various points I can see Burnley or most of Greater Manchester, I think (I can’t differentiate the parts that make up this conurbation but I hear other riders mentioning Rochdale amongst other names). If the weather closes in then these will disappear from view and all sense of direction will be confused. Fortunately for most of the potentially eerie parts I find myself in small groups or near enough to other riders to feel a sense of security.
The downhills judder and clatter you, offering no respite or relief after the climbs. Occasionally we briefly join a road to get to the next section and the tarmac is a godsend. Then we turn through a gate and it all starts again. Oh, the gates, the interminable gates. Any time you get a bit of flow going another gate spoils the party. Riding in groups allows a through and off gate opening pattern to evolve making things easier. After riding the 20 miles to the first control pretty much solo I ride the second half in small groups, linking up with other riders for a few miles at a time, a trio from Ilkley Cycle Club, a pair from Velo Club Beverly Cycle, plus some others.
The ride hurt a bit and I was hungry and slightly worried about getting lost most of the way round, but the landscape is beautiful and the views from up high incredible. It was, despite the hunger and aching legs and battered arms, a fantastic ride, absolutely ace. I’ll be back, but maybe with a slightly lighter bike.
* a.k.a. The Circle of Reservoirs, a.k.a. The Tour of the Thousand Gates
More info about Mary Towneley Loop CX at www.mtlcx.com
If you want to find out more about the MTL then just google “Mary Townley Loop” and you can find lots of information and guides.