ON THE ROAD
Once famous for its steel industry, Sheffield is rebranding itself as the Outdoor City. Greatest Cycling Climbs author, Simon Warren, has recently relocated to the city so sets out to discover some of the ascents he can experience on his new doorstep.
After over two decades living in London, my family and I had been looking for somewhere to lay down new roots. We wanted all the things that England’s capital offered – great bars, restaurants, art and culture – but with all-important swift access to fantastic scenery and a landscape to indulge our love of outdoor pursuits, something even London, largely, falls short of.
We needn’t have looked far beyond the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield. The ‘Outdoor City’, as it’s been billed by the city’s PR folk, has more trees per person than any other city in Europe, is filled with public parks and a third of it lies within the boundaries of the Peak District. As such, more of its residents take part in outdoor activities than anywhere else in Britain. So whether you’re on the road, in the dirt, pounding the pavements, walking, canoeing, you name it, Sheffield might be the place for you.
With the necessary evils of the big move over and the bikes making the journey in one piece, it was time to explore. After a few days of getting out and about, including Winnats Pass, reachable within an hour from my new home, it was time to plot the ultimate Big Ride of the area for Cycling Plus, with a little help from my mate and riding companion, Ben Lowe.
Ben was fresh back from a couple of days hanging out behind the scenes at the Giro d’Italia and full of stories to tell, but first he wanted to know why I’d added 30km onto the previously agreed 100km route. And why had I tagged Rowsley Bar to finish off? “You have to be mad to finish a ride with it,” was Ben’s feelings on the matter. I assured him that a man of his class would have no bother with the extra distance, and Rowsley Bar really isn’t that bad...
Bordering the Peak District, Sheffield – the Steel City – is undergoing a rebrand as The Outdoor City. Havin just moved there, hill climber Simon Warren looks to see if it lives up to its billing…
From the heart
We began in the heart of the city at the train station, but within 20 minutes we were free. Even at this point, your legs will be sore and you’ll be well aware that Sheffield, with its abundance of hills, is a tough place to ride a bike. Famously built on seven hills, like Rome, there isn’t an inch of flat anywhere and there’s a mountain to climb around just about every corner.
Five kilometres in, and already less built up, we made our way north, skirting the edge of the city taking in a few little climbs, but this time descending the big beasts such as Lodge Lane and Spout Lane on our way up to Oughtibridge. This village lies at the base of the famous Jawbone climb that was used on stage two of the Tour de France when it came to Yorkshire in 2014. We’re not here to ride that, because there’s a far better option in Coldwell Hill. A local rider described it as their Alpe d’Huez, it’s a lot shorter, but a lot steeper.
This narrow, silky smooth path starts with a slight dip and then kicks up, and boy does it kick up. Right away you are fighting a 20 per cent gradient as it flips right, left, right through a series of tight hairpins between the manicured gardens of exclusive properties. It is pure pleasure and pain rolled into one, and one of my new favourite roads. Be warned that the start isn’t easy to find as you have to cross a lowered pavement. It looks like a driveway or path but trust me, it’s neither, so keep your eyes peeled.
From there we headed west into The Strines, a small triangle of land bordered by the A57 in the south, the High Peak borough to the west and the A616/A6102 to the north east. With the villages of High and Low Bradfield at its heart it is about the most perfect place to ride a bike you could find. Myriad roads cross its collection of punishing hills and almost all have been recently resurfaced to a standard only usually found on the continent. Rolling up and down constant hills on pitch black asphalt through quiet lanes is pretty much all a cyclist could wish for. You could notch up 100km of riding in The Strines and never use the same road twice such is the proliferation of intertwining lanes, and although I avoided some of the standout climbs like Deliverance or the Beast of Bradfield – it’s far too early in the ride for them – I did squeeze in a couple of little ascents.
When we set off first thing it was under grey skies and the temperature was in single figures, but by now the sun was burning the cloud away so it was time to strip off some layers and dump them in photographer Henry’s car. Leaving The Strines we had to jump on the A57 for a short while to the dam over Ladybower reservoir. I would normally avoid this road like the
Rolling up and down hills on pitch black asphalt through quiet lanes is pretty much all a cyclist could wish for
plague, but you have little choice should you want to link The Strines with the Peak District.
First on our agenda, and the first of a handful of the true classic climbs today, was Mam Nick. As we rode into Hope and through Edale we were mentally preparing for its fearsome slopes. There were to be no heroics today, even though the wind was in our favour. Today was just for tapping out a steady pace. The trouble is Mam Nick is tough enough in places to hurt the legs, regardless of pace, but on the flip side any pain is washed away by the pure beauty that surrounds you. In the shadow of Man Tor on the horizon, the road snakes through grassy hillocks to reveal stunning views out to your left through Edale. The Peak District at its finest.
Over the top and it was time to descend Winnats Pass. Winnats is without doubt the national park’s star attraction. Outside of anti-social hours it is a busy road and as dramatic and beautiful as it is, it soon gets over-run with vehicles, which can ruin your climbing experience. You still get to enjoy its splendour on the way down, just without the suffering, just remember to keep your fingers near the brakes as you soon reach peak velocity on its 25 per cent slopes.
Riding into and through Castleton it was time to tackle one of the new climbs on my radar, Pindale Road. Not quite as tough as Winnats, but still a brute, it ramps up out of the village, approaching 20 per cent through the woods before breaking free to reveal more stunning views, this time looking east over the infamous cement works. This distinctive building is a blot on the landscape, but has somehow become part of it, its brutal concrete construction in sharp contrast to the rolling hills that surround it.
From Pindale we rolled along the tops for a while, our bellies rumbling from the kilometres already in the bag. I rarely stop on rides, my wife would kill me if she found out I was ‘wasting’ time hanging out in cafés, so no matter the distance a stop is never on my agenda. Today it seemed appropriate, though. We were working, after all, and decided there would be no better place than the café at the top of Monsal Head.
We worked our way through the villages of Tideswell, Litton and Cressbrook, weaving between the neat stone walls and dropped down into Monsal Dale. Usually I’m in Monsal Dale in October before the annual hill climb, consumed by nerves and sick with anxiety, so it made a refreshing change to be just rolling along and pottering up instead of eyeballs out, tasting blood. Ben still holds the course record for a veteran on the hill with
a 1:31, which he often reminds me of. Looking at his face, and how the hills were taking a toll on his hairy legs, he was not going to get anywhere close to that today.
After an exemplary toasted sandwich at Hobb’s Café, where Ben had extra beans for added power, we set off for the toughest climb of the day – and a little extra surprise before we got there. My legs feel like lumps of lead after café stops and whenever I hit a hill I always feel like I’m going to throw up. So with heavy legs and full stomachs we rolled down into Ashford in the Water, then into Bakewell, suffered the A6 for a short while on our way to the next hidden gem.
Looking at this route you will see the star climbs right away, the famous ones, just like when you look into the night sky and see
This final stage of the loop is as spectacular as any of the others, distinct in character and really hard work
The Plough or Orion, the popular stars stand out, but it’s often away from the bright lights, in the darkness that the real treasures are found. Very like the climb of Stantonhall Lane. A beauty at 1km long, with three vicious hairpin bends, it’s tight, twisting and just a joy to ride. Looking at the map this deviation from the A6 seems totally pointless, as a kilometre later we were back on the same road, but our lives were far richer and our legs far weaker for the diversion.
Up next was the mighty Rowsley Bar, an unforgiving road that begins to beat your body up the moment you hit its lower slopes, as it heads directly up the bank towards the woods ahead. Ben was moaning big time now, he knows what lies ahead, Rowsley is a beast. Bending right at the end of the first drag the gradient backs off slightly before ramping up once more to hit two excruciatingly steep turns on the roughest of surfaces under the thick canopy of trees. The road under your wheels is scared, as if torn by the claws of some giant prehistoric creature, its bumps and ridges further hindering your progress through its savage twin bends.
The slope continues remorselessly as you search for an elusive summit, which appears to lie around another 20 per cent corner, but prepare to be disappointed. You may reach a
brow, you may have conquered the worst of the gradient but you are far from the top. At this point I knew Ben was empty as he cursed under his breath, but I assured him the tough climbing was behind us. By comparison the rest of the ride appears flat but trust me, it never is. By now though I had successfully digested my ham and cheese toastie and was full of riding and ploughing into the wind on the open planes across the moors I relished the opportunity to provide a wheel for Ben to follow.
Although lacking standout climbs this final stage of the loop is just as spectacular as any of the others, distinct in character and really hard work when the wind is blowing across the featureless landscape. Via the Owler Bar roundabout we made our way to Foxholes and then finished on what all rides tend to finish with in Sheffield, 10km of blissful downhill.
All the moaning that it takes 30 minutes to climb out into the Peak District are long forgotten as you speed back into to town at 50kph, cashing in all those miles of altitude your banked earlier in the day.
Once back from the outdoors it’s time to indulge in the amenities of the city before catching your train home. From exceptional Italian at Nonna’s on Ecclesall Road to coffee and cake at Bragazzis on Abbydale Road and everything in between, there is no shortage of quality places to refuel after a tough ride. So has the Outdoor City lived up to its billing? Has it ever! Amazing roads, stunning scenery and the pizza is every bit as good as is it in Naples. I’m just sorry we didn’t move here earlier.
Top Thrilling descents are reward for all your leg work
Above This ride had less of a competitive edge compared to Simon’s usual forays into the hills around Sheffield
Above Standout climbs prove a tough challenge, even for our seasoned riders
Above The Outdoor City lives up to its name