According to exercise tracking service Strava Annemiek van Vleuten holds the women’s top spot for cycling Yorkshire’s Trapping Hill. The Dutch rider raced up this 1.7-mile climb, which hits thigh-burning gradients of 17%, in seven minutes 10 seconds during the 2019 World Championships.
It takes me about three times as long. Then again, my approach is slightly different.
First, a refreshment stop at Lofthouse village at the bottom of the hill, where local dairy farmer Diane has set up ‘Nan’s Ice Cream Shed’ on the roadside. The sun’s blazing, so I top up my factor-30 and fuel up with strawberry ice cream as a buzzard circles overhead and songbirds chirp in the hedges. The only thing racing once I do get going is my pulse. I stop halfway to take a photo and am almost hyperventilating by the time I reach the top.
There won’t be any Strava rankings for me, but – as most bike lovers well know – doesn’t being out on the open road on two wheels always feel like a victory? After the past year-and-a-half, these wins feel all the sweeter, and even if our speeds are in very different leagues, there’s something extra thrilling knowing I’m riding in the wheel tracks of some of the world’s cycling greats.
The Yorkshire Dales play host to a number of major cycling events, including the Tour de France Grand Depart and the World Cycling Championships – and many of the very same routes feature in Wilderness England’s new Self Guided Plus Cycling Tour of Yorkshire, which I’m trying out.
From the same team behind the award-winning Wilderness Scotland and Wilderness Ireland, who’ve been running all sorts of adventure travel trips since 2001 and 2014 respectively, they’d planned to launch this one in 2020, which for obvious reasons wasn’t a great year for travel and hospitality. Now though, with the road to post-pandemic recovery in sight, our appetite for adventure, nature and a sense of freedom has perhaps never been greater – and Yorkshire has these in spades.
This trip’s full five-day itinerary (I’m doing as much as I can in three) takes you on a 192-mile (308km) loop, starting and ending in Pateley Bridge. This may not sound massively challenging distance-wise, but the Dales are hilly. And we’re not just talking the handful of lung-busting corkers you’ll encounter; the whole region is famous for its rolling landscapes. Plus, this is a holiday not a race; the country pubs and cake stops are just as important as conquering those climbs.
With a difficulty grade of ‘blue 6’, the route is at the upper end of ‘moderate to challenging’ (green 1-3 grades are easiest; red 7-9 are toughest). While you don’t have to be a hardcore athlete for this trip, you will need a decent level of cycling experience. There’s always the option to hire an e-bike if your joints and stamina could use a boost, but you’ll still want to be comfortable doing multiple days on the road.
So, what are you paying for with a self-guided-plus tour? The cycling is self-guided, meaning you and your partner/pals can enjoy the ride at your own pace, without having to merge with strangers – but navigation’s all taken care of, as Wilderness England will supply Garmins with pre-saved route maps. They’ll also sort all your accommodation and you’ll get a dedicated soigneur (support driver), who’ll cart your luggage and be on hand throughout for mechanical support, and generally making sure you’re all set and taken care of.
Will my soigneur, doubles up as a tour guide, as well as having a canny knack for knowing exactly when I could use a caffeine boost (there’s fresh coffee in the van, as well as snacks and water). Plus, you can hop in the van at any point if you need to (there is no shame in skipping a hill or two!). Bikes are either hired (for an extra fee) or you can bring your own.
The accommodation’s a mix of 3-4-star hotels and inns, on a B&B basis. Everywhere I stay has its own character and charm – a highlight is a night in a yurt at the Black Swan in Ravenstonedale. Lunches and dinners aren’t included, so you’ll need to budget for these, and book ahead to avoid disappointment if there are any particular places you want dinner at (the aforementioned Black Swan’s food is excellent). Your soigneur can help with recommendations, but finding lunch spots won’t be hard, as there are plenty of pubs and cafes, and no shortage of cake stops.
You can stop along the way at some tourist hotspots too, such as Malham Cove – a 260ft high natural limestone amphitheatre – and Wenselydale Creamery, a great spot for lunch and sampling their famous cheese.
So, it’s the best of both worlds, really: the convenience of being looked after and someone else doing all the organising, yet you still get your own adventure with some lovely long days in the saddle, soaking up the scenery.
My trip starts with glorious blue skies. I cruise past meadows scattered with bluebells, daisies and buttercups so bright, it’s like the world’s switched on a filter. Some route sections are on main roads (none felt especially busy) but you’ll spend a lot of time on quiet lanes; for some parts, I encounter more long-horned sheep than traffic.
I ride over bridges, alongside lakes and rippling rivers. Through woodlands and farmlands and sweeping valleys, whose lush green basins are chequered with laithes – old stone barns that are one of the Dales’ most distinctive features, alongside its charming villages, vast moors and, of course, those hills.
One of the most notable you’ll face is Fleet Moss, considered one of the UK’s top bike climbs. Approached from the southern side, you’ll be pushing for a good 2.5km. It starts off gradually enough, before the final stretch throws up some super-steep bends, hitting those 17% gradients again. Will meets me in the van at a tapered point before the climb gets serious; a quick roadside coffee and chocolate bar is exactly what I need to power on up.
It’s a brute. But once at the top, gasps of exhaustion quickly give way to gasps of awe, as I stop wobbly-kneed on the highest road in Yorkshire gazing at a vast blanket of heathy bogland, and the endless humps and dips of the valleys beyond.
My favourite section of the trip though, is on day five’s route, a 10-mile stretch across a plateau on the way out of Settle near Pen Y Ghent. The sunshine’s long gone but the grey sky and growling breeze ramp up the wildness. For a good glorious hour, I am alone in the wilderness, gliding along on top of the world.
How to plan your trip
Wilderness England’s (wildernessengland.com; 01768 721 210) Self Guided Plus+ Cycling Tour of Yorkshire costs from £845pp based on four sharing, including four nights’ B&B accommodation, a Wilderness England soigneur and transfers with Wilderness England