Riding coast to coast... off-road

Published: 17 April 2016

North Sea to Irish Sea on the dirt. They said it couldn't be done - not by these clowns anyhow. Originally published in August 1997. 

wice in a quarter of a mile. That's my record for going over the handlebars. Sailing across bogs on Arkleside Moor in Yorkshire. I'm trying to keep up with a six-strong herd of crazed speed-freaks throwing 30-foot rooster trails in the air. Christ, this isn't trail riding: it's Mad Max on mud.

They're led by former British superbike champion Jim Whitham, who's pretty tasty on the dirt, and I wonder why they're all stopping, turning around and watching me intently. "Hey, it's nice of the fellas to stop and let me catch ARRROOOooof..." The front wheel drops up to its spindle in a sinkhole and I'm over the handlebars and on my back before I have time to think about letting go of the grips. I watch the bike hang stoppie-vertical above me and then fall backwards.

"It's all about picking the right route through the wetland, yer see," cackles Whitham, risking hilarity-induced bladder leakage. "Yer'll pick it up." And I did pick the bike up again about ten minutes later on the other side of the moor, when another speed/bogland interface hoyed me off. Turns out only one bloke has ever walked on water before and he rode a Harley, not a KTM LC2 like mine. I was learning fast. Off-road riding is all about balance and foresight. Sadly I have the balance of a pension queue and the foresight of the Light Brigade.

Most of my life's most horrible exploits (appalling lost fights, terribly ill-advised bets, astonishing sexual mistakes) are rooted gallon-deep in Guinness. This adventure was brewed up at a formica Butlins bar at the Bike Spring Spectacular, with ex-Bike editor turned mountain recluse Mac McDiarmid telling me you could cross Britain sea to sea, off-road. Bloodshot eyes flared. "We'll have a bit of that." And the deal was done.

Overall we rode 200 miles cross-country, more than three-quarters on dirt. I fell off seven times, bruised both thighs on the handlebars, got soaked in freezing water within minutes of starting each day's ride and it snowed on me, despite it being May. And when it was all over I had to walk up the stairs to bed backwards because my thighs were so shagged.

But listen, I now regard off-road riding the most rewarding thing you can ever do on two wheels. You can fall off and it doesn't hurt. You can slide both wheels without the skill of Jean Michel Bayle. You can practise wheelies in (almost) complete safety. And when you stop for a roll-up the view is gorgeous. It's great.

We set out full of hope. The breakfast table at our B&B in Sleights, outside Whitby, north Yorks, was spread with a dozen OS maps, each marked with trails that vehicles are allowed to use. It looked like a bloody long way already.

The first day's cast of characters consisted of me and Bike design guru Ped Baker, Mac and two mates, Georgie Shawn Merrick (boss of Speed Couriers in Brum) and skilled enduro rider Hazzie, aka Ian Haslop.

We set off from Whitby at 9am. The rain is bouncing rocks of ice on us and this is May. We have to carry everything with us, so I wear all the clothes I can. For the next three days I will be either working hard and boiling hot or being feeble, freezing cold.

The first few trails are kids' stuff, but getting sloshier until the clouds break and we stop for lunch at the Faversham Arms in the Ferndale Valley, 30 miles in.

Barman, all grin and scalp says: "It's gonna snow. Zero visibility on the moors, tha knows. £10.20 please." In fact it doesn't snow properly until day two.

I'm learning that to get the best of the bike you must stand up, unless cornering hard, when you must sit right forward, almost on the tank and stick your leg out like the motocrossers. But the toughest thing for a nobber to learn is that when you face a new obstacle, you gas it - exactly the opposite from what seems prudent on the road. It works, but it dunarf make your heart flip.

Mid-afternoon we stop for a map reading and a very polite lady informs us that, yes, there's a green lane which starts just past her double garage. This is not the first time signs are difficult to follow. Many are dilapidated or have been removed by farmers who don't want motorised goons crossing their land.

Meanwhile, our polite lady must be laughing up her sleeve while she hears us trying to flail up the hill past her double garage for half an hour. That's how long it takes us to haul the bikes up this vertical swamp. Only Hazzie manages to ride it; the rest of us take to walking the bikes up at low revs - bloody hard work.

The wretched Ped is having no fun at all. He's already picked up his heavy 610cc KTM LC4 twice and with worn trail tyres it's been sapping his will to live since the word go. In the end, this muddy section takes so much out of him he takes the tarmac option for the rest of the day.

In contrast, Hazzie's having the time of his life - so much so he does a wheelie-cum-jump out of a gulley for the camera and loops out. Mac gets a photo of him coming over, then has to scamper for cover before snapping the next frame of an RMX Suzuki flipping in mid-air.

The views turn from spectacular to breathtaking. Astride my mud-bloodied bike, overlooking Northallerton and Thirsk on the western escarpment of the north Yorkshire moors, I'm an Essex man wondering why I don't move up north. Then it starts lashing down - vertical 10p-sized lumps of rain that smack into my face like punk spit. A half-hour of this facial shot-peening on slippery descents and I'm knackered. Then the Half Moon pub and B&B hoves into view and I'm very happy.

Day two, and our numbers are swelled by ace trailster Dave Bentley, who's setting up a guided trail tour firm called Rooster Trails (watch Bike), plus dirt fiend Jim Whitham. They've both got up at 6am to meet us, and Bentley's brought us a knobblier front tyre to try and make Ped's fresh attempt on the KTM 610 less of an ordeal.

We set off and the pace is hotting up nicely. Whit, competitive from birth if not before, won't allow anyone in front of him, which is cool because it means he opens most of the gates. I get used to arriving last and being nodded through by Whit, who then scorches past on his way to the next. But even this VIP treatment doesn't help the hapless Ped. Already a veteran of many fall-offs and restarts, he gives up his unequal struggle with the monster 610, and heads back to the roads.

The climb from Scar House Reservoir is the site of my double get-off - but then comes some really testing stuff: descents on skull-sized rocks which move when you hit them. I hate this; it feels incredibly unsafe. "The bigger the boulder, the faster you've got to go," says Hazzie. It makes sense when he does it, but I keep braking. I just can't convince myself I'm in control anywhere above second gear, and gingerly edge over the shifting boulders like a one-legged ant creeping across a hairbrush.

It's tough. Especially when I get to the bottom and there's a lad on a Honda CR500 crosser, one of the most ferocious motorcycles on earth, on his way up. He smiles and nods cheerfully. "Must practice big rocks," says my mental notebook.

A great spot of lunch in Starbotton, then up onto Starbotton Fell where the ground opens up and you can go as fast as you like on grit. The primitive track has sunk in places so there's great sport to be had timing overtaking manouvres and soaking unsuspecting mates.

It starts showing pretty hard on Wether Fell and the wind makes it extra chilly. But there's an old Roman road up there which gives incredible views of the valley. The tracks cut through heather which feels lovely to ride on, like a spongey mattress. By the time we glimpse Hawes, where we're staying the night it's practically a blizzard. Bentley's made the mistake of wearing a Coast-to-Coast T-shirt, so Mac forces him to strip for a picture. Whit has to be back home in Huddersfield to get wined and dined by a sponsor, and the other lads have to get to work, so it's just Mac and me who descend into Hawes to meet Ped, in glorious warm sunshine. I'm absolutely shagged.

Last day. Mac, Ped and I head up Dodd Fell and along another section of Roman Road before joining one of the few parts of the Pennine Way open to vehicles. Army lads yomping in packs and red Berghaus-clad townies grin as we pass. No-one's given us any grief for riding through this peaceful countryside. Most give a wave, or ask for a lift.

Mac has metamorphosed into a geography guru. It turns out we're on one of the highest points in the region, and therefore a watershed. Mac puts it slightly differently from my old geog teacher: "Piss left and it goes into the Irish Sea, piss right and it'll reach the North Sea."

We get to Cam End and the Ribblehead Viaduct. This awesome structure to furnish Lancashire with a west-east rail route cost the lives of countless navvies. It's an astonishing feat of engineering and on a trail bike you can ride right under it and up onto the Great Wold. The scenery's started getting more rounded, less bleak, chilling out as we get closer to the coastline, over Whernside and down into Kirkby Lonsdale. Even on a Thursday there are bikers around at this fave haunt.

Forced onto tarmac we make the final push to Jenny Brown's Point in Morecombe Bay, just north of Carnforth.

I celebrate with a final display of guileless stupidity by jumping off a rock and into the sea, grazing both hands. Forever an imbecile.

 

The bikes

We used a pair of KTM trail bikes; I hogged the 125cc, two stroke LC2 (£3656); Ped was stuck with the 609cc, four-stroke 620 EGSE (£5690). We were joined by Suzuki RMX250s and a Honda XR400 – proper enduro racebikes.

 

 

THE GOOD OFF-ROAD GUIDE

  • English and Welsh green lanes appear on OS maps as BOATS (Byways Open to All Traffic). They’re proper roads and it’s unlawful to block them, or even post signs claiming no right of way.
  • Equally, you need a road-legal bike – which is tax, insurance, MOT, silencing and (ahem) tyres. All trail tyres are useless in mud. Enduro knobblies are legal, full-on crosser tyres aren’t.
  • The best maps are the 1: 50,000 ‘Landranger’ Ordnance Survey (OS) jobs (£5 from bookshops). Unfortunately OS maps only show whatever the relevant county council pass to the Ordnance Survey. Usually they’re so inaccurate they’re useless for legal trail riders (or, come to that, for ramblers). Every inch of our coast-to-coast route was legal, but hardly any of it appeared as such on the map. Wiltshire and one or two other councils are exceptions. A few even signpost their BOATS.
  • This being so, you need a ‘marked-up’ map, produced after lots of hard research. The TRF (Trail Riders’ Fellowship) are the guardian of this knowledge. Membership: Graham Stratford, 38 Thornton Crescent, Old Coulsdon, Surry CR5 1LH.
  • Scotland is totally different. There’s no law of trespass (except the one emanating from the barrel of a 12-bore), but no network of rights of way except on a few old military roads.

Words Andy Ford  Pictures Mac McDiarmid