Ed’s epic Calder Divide experience
Know the route, terrain & elevation. (Know your enemy?)
If you live in the area or have ridden there before that’s a bonus, if not use every tool at your disposal to get familiar with it. Love or hate Komoot the community added highlights are a goldmine for photos & comments, OS maps is handy for seeing rights of way, terrain & other features (fords & bogs for example) and of course Google for streetview where available (you’d be surprised!).
Check the elevation profile in whatever tool you prefer, where is most of the climbing, what are the notable climbs or steepest sections? Sometimes I’ll break up a long route into average metres of
ascent per km to be able to make a simple comparison between sections.
For Calder Divide I had a good idea that the first & last sections had the majority of the climbing and from experience the Pennine Way Bridleway rarely made for good progress, I also knew that the mid
section with Trans Pennine Trail & well surfaced greenways should be much better going.
Don’t fight it
I’ve found myself discussing average speeds a lot over this last year and whatever your plan it’s often surprising just how slow things can get, especially off-road where often you can’t make back time on the descents.
All the training is behind you, on the day you can only do what you can do. Smashing yourself to pieces to sustain a fictional target pace early on rarely pays off. Again, use all the tools available to you to gauge your effort, power, heart rate but ultimately feel. Lean into & embrace the adverse nature of the challenge you’ve chosen. Keep an honest sustainable effort, the average speed is the output from your effort not the input to decide it.
On the Calder Divide even the first few hours were tough with steep gradients & un-rideable sections, I had to put that to the back of my mind, lean into it and just keep moving as best as I could. Combine that with knowing the route, if I didn’t keep reminding myself that the first section was the toughest, I’d have been distraught at the lack of progress.
Prepare & adapt
Preparation & planning is like an extra discipline in ultra distance. As well as knowing what to expect on the route, knowing where shops, cafes and water points are as well as what time you expect to be there is crucial. Have access to a list of these locations & timings while you’re riding, however works for you. (I use a doc or spreadsheet in google docs & make sure it’s available offline on my
Then be prepared to adapt, no point in stopping early if you’re ahead of time (unless you’re about to enter a resupply desert!) and definitely no point in pushing on to your planned stop if you’re behind. On the Calder Divide this meant a couple of things; looking ahead to choose which of several co-ops/shops to resupply at after lunch, knowing that this resupply probably needed to include food for overnight and having the presence of mind to know that camp site pizza was out of reach and stopping for food at my planned point before that.
My battle scarred NorthRoad Quest has seen a lot of hard miles over the last couple of years and certainly visited it’s home city of Manchester more than once albeit fleetingly so the Calder Divide felt like a bit of a homecoming for it.
As an event it couldn’t have been more inclusive with an amazing five routes graded for MTB or Gravel riding and an overnight campsite (with dropbag option) roughly halfway round each route. Riders of all levels of ability and experience could pick their challenge and how much discomfort they fancied, I’ve posted before about that goldilocks level of challenge, and this had it all available.
Such is my (often foolish) disposition of course I entered the longest Gravel route with a view to treating the campsite more as a pit stop. So it was I loaded up my bike for an overnight camp Friday before rolling to the start on Saturday morning, I was able to leave most of my overnight kit at the start and compared to recent longer events pleasingly my list of kit I was leaving was much longer than that I was taking!
NorthRoad Quest + RideFarr Aero Gravel bars
Shimano GRX (40 + 11-46)
JRA Monitor Wheels + SON dynamo + Schwalbe G1 all round 45mm
Kit for Calder Divide:
Toolkit + Pump + Spare Tube
First aid kit + Whistle
Spare cable & dropout
Fenix HM65R-T headtorch
Gore Shake Dry, Albion Gilet
OEX down jacket
Precision Nutrition blocks + electrolyte tabs
Various bars / snacks / cheese bagels !
I got to the start as early as possible, which involved an unreasonably early alarm & decamp in the dark but at least there was coffee & toast laid on. Registration was quiet with most riders on shorter routes opting for a bit more sleep. The long route was a game of 3 halves, I knew the first 80km contained a good amount of climbing and rough stuff, then followed a middle roughly 100km to the campsite which was relatively flat and a final 80km which took us back to the rough stuff & the remaining elevation (and would likely be tackled overnight just to add to the adversity).
Rolling out from the start a touch before 7 saw an immediate left straight uphill and onto cobbles back past the campsite, shortly after hitting the Pennine Bridleway. Experience suggests that this is almost never good progress for a gravel bike and the irregular slabbed path here was no exception.
The scene for the day was well and truly set and I wasn’t fooled by the short canal section. Climbing out from Littleborough takes you up over the moors and one of the highest points of the route. The track varied from invisible to lumpy to reasonable meaning progress was slow, that said despite a bit of a grey day the views were good.
Eventually a road & a junction I’ve seen a few times, now dropping into Holme Chapel before climbing back up to Hurstwood reservoirs. This takes me back on a familiar section of the Pennine
bridleway, decent riding but tough with some classic switchbacks in & out of steep sided cloughs. I bounced with a group of club riders in yellow tops here and their support car now sure when they started but a good bit of banter and I amused myself if they knew what they were in for given the “road club” on the jerseys.
Riding with one other at some point after a boggy hike a bike and sloppy grass descent with multiple gates the rider I could see behind caught us. A lady on a hardtail with a fair amount of load, no idea what time she had started but was making impressive progress on what appeared for now to be a much better suited bike!
Eventually briefly hitting the road at Wycoller & dropping into Bronte country to find a pub to refill my water. Climbing again and then following the line of a curious man made waterway which at
least kept a level contour into the mist before dropping down to Ogden country park. Three chaps on MTBs approached the descent from the opposite direction of one of the shorter routes and made short work of the descent whilst I rattled my way down. The café I’d earmarked
was thankfully open and there followed a short reunion of all kinds of bikes & bikers taking tea/ice cream/cake, including who I now learnt to be Hattie on the hardtail rolling in not far behind.
Aside from a super steep road climb out this marked the end of that section.
Very soon we hit well surfaced greenway a touch of canal which were an absolute pleasure skimming through Dewsbury. Somewhat aware of the time my focus here was on a Co-op at 120km where I allowed myself a much stop needed to both take stock and restock.
It’s now gone 5pm, I probably won’t make the campsite in time for Pizza & my options for resupply after this get increasingly limited. I make myself eat some food & get some more bars, sweets & savouries to carry along. Time off the bike sometimes feels wasted but taking time to refuel, rest, assess & adapt is still important.
I keep rolling along to the furthest point of the loop finally crossing the River Aire at Castleford. I’m pretty sure Pizza is off, so I need to think about a decent feed before the night section. I’ve been on
the look out for a handy chippy but don’t want to go off route which may be a mistake, so only 20miles on from the co-op I stop at one of my last noted options, a Starbucks on the edge of
Wakefield, not ideal but it’s hot & filling, and there’s a loo! Darkness descends during the stop and I’m clearly now into the night section.
I get caught faffing by a couple of chaps on a section of disused rail line, I’ve no idea what route they’re on, they’ve caught me but then drop back so I’m not sure what’s going on there. Even as I
can still see their lights behind, I slowly catch another tail-light & eventually recognise the rucksack, I pull alongside Hattie who is surprised to see me. I’m not sure if she bounced me at the co-op or Starbucks but she’s clearly been moving consistently & is focussed on getting to the campsite which
is now tantalisingly close.
Except of course, now the climbing starts again in earnest. With the advantage of some road & being freshly fuelled I pull away again. It’s now dark and misty as I clatter down a rough descent in the
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, losing my nerve and having to dismount a couple of times. At the bottom I do a double take as a 9foot sculpture of a person appears out of the mist, I file it away with all the
other things to process later.
A collection of grubby double & farm tracks finally gets me to Shepley and the campsite. I’m 195km & 15hrs30 into my ride, I have 8hours to cover the remaining hilly 80km if I want to get in under 24hrs. The first 80km took that long in daylight so this seems a big ask, but the only option is to keep moving forwards.
There’s a barn full of bikes & classic tractors but most are tucked up in bed. The pizza van is clearing up and they only have beer for sale. One of the volunteers kindly makes me a cup of tea whilst I at least have some cake. It’s admin time now before the remaining night section, I plug my phone & wahoo in, refill my water and put my leg warmers on. Hattie rolls in as I’m about ready to leave but I’m a mile up the road before I wonder what her plans were (to sleep for 5hours oversleeping her alarm by 3hrs later found out!).
Heading into the darkness again a little unsure exactly what’s to come there’s a decent amount of road & rideable track as I climb steadily back toward the moors. I recognise names like Woodhead
Road, although not the pass & Saddleworth but not quite the moor itself. Shortly after comes the highest point on the route and after a small portion of A-road I’m picking my way down the Pennine Way towards Marsden before digging back out on the road.
My wahoo beeps that I’m off route, I swing back looking for the left fork and see nothing but crash barrier, mist and a steep drop. I turn my headtorch on full but that just illuminates an impenetrable
sheet of white mist. After a bit of walking up and down I see what might be a path and have to hike my bike down & back up the other side.
This feels like the sketchiest section so far, going is slow, visibility is poor and it’s blowing a gale over the moors. If I had to stop for any reason now I’d be cold within minutes and I’m questioning
whether I have enough kit for that eventuality.
After the longest mile ever I cross the A62 and find myself back on the Pennine Way. My head torch is almost useless in the mist, it’s hard to pick a line down the big gravel & ruts and even harder to
keep riding up some of the steeper sections. At one point there’s a light on a gatepost that I’m convinced is a person with a headtorch, I spend too long looking at it and get caught by a rut taking a slow-mo tumble & roll. No damage other than my ego and luckily it was just a light in the darkness.
Back into Littleborough where the trail split many hours ago, so near to home but every climb and cobble is a chore. I can see dawn is coming, part relief, part annoyance, I have maybe 40minutes to cover 20km, it’s not much but it’s just not going to happen at this stage.
Eventually however it’s back to canal and winging into Mytholmroyd and la fin !
Unsurprisingly it’s a bit of a quiet affair, seems like only a handful of riders going through the night on any route but I’m taken good care of and get a beer & pie for first breakfast followed by much needed shower and nap!
I might not have made the 24hr target but given the conditions and terrain I was pretty surprised how close I got, I’m pretty content with how I managed my efforts, fuelling & hydration, making
good decisions when it mattered. Kudos to the organisers manging to create an event allowing for such an inclusive range of routes & challenge levels, if I had the inclination I could have had a much more sociable time of it and maybe even pizza!
Best part of 300km in one hit overnight is not something to be taken lightly, I have a lot of miles in the legs this year and a lot of experience over these distances and as an endurance coach I love sharing that & helping people working toward whatever their next big challenges is. If you’re tempted to train & prepare for something as gruelling as Calder Divide or one of the many long road & gravel events out there get in touch (See HP3 & Instagram)!
Calder Divide: https://www.calderdividetrail.co.uk/
Goldilocks post: https://www.instagram.com/p/Ci7HRD8KhnU/
Strava activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/9868319709
All words and photos courtesy of Ed.