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Bowderdale and the Howgills

The Howgills are an area of the Yorkshire Dales, to the Eastern side of the M6 motorway from the Lake District. They are often overlooked which is a mistake because they offer quality riding (and pushing...).

Lovely weather
Easy to access, Sedburgh is just off the M6. We arrived in a storm of wind blasted drizzle and it was cold. We soon spotted Doug walking down the main street and Paul sensed something was badly wrong, other than the sick weather that is. The bombshell exploded: Doug had forgotten his helmet. We counted our spare helmets, twice. There were none. We cooked up crazy ideas for going door to door: 'hello! You don't know us but: do you have a cycling helmet and can we borrow it? We'll return it later honestly'. In the end Doug decided to just take it easy whilst for our part Paul and I agreed to go hell for leather at it, then wait at convenient points.

No business like snow business
We got changed (in the car, wimps) and set off on time or thereabouts. No sooner had we reached boiling point on the first road climb section than the rain stopped. We took Doug's sage advice and ignored the MBR route taking a more rolling stab at the way to the top. The grassy climb was made more interesting by the twenty degree wind chill and the rapidly developing and frankly impressive view as far as the sea at Morecombe bay. Despite the gaps we were peering through, the clouds raced by menacingly in the savage winds, which mauled the hills and tore at the flimsy jackets of under dressed fools. There weren't too many fools up there that day however, it should be noted. We reached the Trig point and attacked the next climb which was where we saw the first of the snow. Not too much really, we weren't impressed to start with.

Off down a sweet double made interesting by rainwater erosion we went, another huge steep climb was dead ahead and this one was white, very white. We rode as far as we could but soon the gradient and the slippery stuff had the better of us (if I'm honest it was mostly the gradient) and we trudged upwards with the temperature dropping like a stone which was impressive, because it hadn't started warm. On this side of the hill a miracle had occurred, the wind had died down so much it was almost still, spooky and useful in this frozen place. As we approached the top of here I spotted the frozen wire fence and we stopped to take the picture in the gallery of the icy grid, moments after the picture I destroyed it with a brush of my gloved finger, it was as fragile as a house of cards.

Slip sliding away
A few more yards and we reached the top which is where the wind had gone to play and it wasn't playing nicely. We donned everything we had and raced down and up the other side of a 'U' shaped valley losing the fickle wind and reaching a frozen plateau in the process. We had to check our bearings then, as the snow obscured the trails and it wasn't at all obvious which way Bowderdale was. We found it by and by and began descending full of confidence and expectation. Of course what we should have been expecting was a severely water eroded singletrack ditch and lots of off-camber, ice bearing snow covered grass! I can honestly say I've never travelled so far with my rear wheel sideways, wondering how the hell to slow down let alone stop.

Give me a brake
Front braking was suicide, rear braking sent you sideways but it was the only way to hold down your speed. Eventually I had to slow approaching a huge bomb hole and simply planted my left boot and slewed around in what technically at least, could barely be called a crash. After this madness I decided that maybe the tank stopping trail wasn't so bad after all and rode the boulder filled ditch again instead. Paul got well ahead and didn't look like he was about to stop for anything so minor as solid ice. After I'd cleared the snow line I stopped to wait for Doug, he soon came in to view and pitched up violently throwing himself sideways presumably to avoid bashing his unprotected noggin. Trouble was he was over using his brakes trying to be safe, which of course makes you crash!

By the time we found Paul he was camera in hand looking to see if he could snap me crashing on a tricky little stream crossing. Jutting rocks made the steep entry difficult but my careful approach was the ticket, we soon found Paul had landed in the stream! Boggy sections hindered further progress and after another half a mile of difficult going we turned for the journey back. Bowderdale is a grand 'U' shaped valley and we had a bit more time to appreciate it's stark beauty as we rode/walked back up the long, remote length of it, all the time climbing it's East side. We soon reached our own skid marks in the snow and trudged on until finally we came to the summit ponds once more. Whilst we took a break I couldn't resist checking the ice and a few solid kicks of my heel didn't crack it. So we sent Paul out to test it properly, assuring him we were almost certain he wouldn't plunge through to an icy death. Remarkably this turned out to be true and it says something about Paul's bravery (or trust in my judgment) that he went for it. Don't try this at home kids.

Flying fools
A dead straight snowy descent followed, the only way to do it fast was not to brake at all, a mind over slippery matter trick which would appeal to lunatics and lemmings alike. I got going at a fair old lick by the bottom, terminal velocity on snow, yikes! The next descent had National Park rain bars built of stone slabs on edge. We pre-jumped the lot and my no braking trick almost came to grief on the grass below. Going too fast at the bottom (of course) multiple deep ruts and small 'moguls' which might have been a plod took on a frightening aspect as I struggled to maintain control. By now the sky was clearing revealing a magical cloudscape and the final descent awaited. Climbing for the last time above the snowline gravity smoothly tilted our way and drop-off after drop-off presented itself and was flown.

This was a scream and we built huge speed again clearing record flights for me anyway, which was good because a couple were actually huge holes and hitting the step up at the far end would have been really dumb. Jump now like you've never jumped before! We cleared the lot and came over the final col and straight in to the gale force wind which magically blew only here, it must have been behind us before, no wonder we had ridden so fast and flown so far! Now it was a fearsome enemy as we dropped down the steep grass leaning ludicrously sideways and struggling desperately to keep our wheels on the ground. A small hop in this and your bike would be whipped out from underneath you, knowing this certainly cramped my style as even a front wheel lift was a dangerous move. My wheel dropped alarmingly in to a half seen hole and I wondered if this was how a novice would feel, with every obstacle being rolled at speed rather than manualed or hopped entirely.

As we reached the semi-banked grass turns of the bottom section over-shooting was inevitable, slow down, slow down some more, still going way too fast! Hello heather. Bumping the two hundred yards down to the final gate on a farmer 'improved' section of bridleway we knew we'd had a really great ride and who would have guessed it given the sick weather that same morning? Nice.

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