If you clicked on this article to be transported to stunning Tuscan-style white gravel roads, sun-kissed and surrounded by lush vineyards, you’ve come to the wrong place. Gravel riding in the Peak District couldn’t be further from the strade bianche roads that come to mind when you dream of taking your bike off-piste into the tranquil countryside. In fact, the terrain in the Cims is a completely different sauce.
But the rutted, stony paths are full of character that defines this part of northern England. There are no textbook gravel roads, but instead there is cheeky, tricky terrain that is almost perfectly imperfect. It was the cobbled and cobbled route that made our day on gravel bikes in the Peak District so endearing. It was no fairy tale, no long cruises on uninterrupted stretches of well contained stony paths, but it did involve focus, varied scenery and above all, some hard graft.
The day started at The Service Course, a cafe and bike shop based in Wilmslow, run by cyclists who frequent the area on two wheels. It is for this reason that they were well positioned to plan the route of the event that they had rightly coined: “Off Track in the Peaks”. A flurry of cyclists gathered at the start, bar bags, cargo shorts and gravel tires galore, as rumors of the challenging day ahead flew off the cafe walls.
Unusually for the north of England, the sky was a stunning blue, and the sun was so hot that arms and braces were discarded at the start of the trip. Almost cruelly, the start of the route was tame. Unaware of the trepidation that awaited us, we cruised along paved roads and skirted the banks of canals, rolling at a fast average speed, naively thinking that covering the 108 kilometers planned for the day would be a breeze.
It was around 20 km into the route that the harsh reality of the harshness of the northern landscape that surrounded us hit home. A sharp right turn revealed a narrow path surrounded by towering trees. Under my tires were huge, jagged rocks. Passing over them without setting foot was a challenge, but the main obstacle was the unevenness of the path, with gradients well in excess of 15%. In my lightest gear, I climbed back up, the peaceful cry of birdsong interrupted by my ragged breathing as beads of sweat splashed down my top tube.
With a stop to let even more pressure out of my tires halfway up the climb, I finally made it to the top, and the landscape that just five minutes earlier I had sworn I would never return to was redeemed. Wide vistas of rolling green meadows lay before me, sun-soaked, verdant and lush. Small farmhouses and clusters of scattered white sheep occasionally interrupted the landscape, a sign of life in this quiet corner of the world.
There was little time to enjoy the view, but as we sped along a slight concern crept in about how long it would take us to complete the route given our average speed drop since hitting the first hill of the day.
We took a path that cut through the meadows, bordered by the authentic stone walls so common in the area. Coarse gray gravel in one section led to our only practical loss of the day, deep rocks at one point giving the tires too much as we skidded to a stop.
Once we got through the hairier sections the terrain became a bit more controlled as we reached the Pennine Bridleway. While the terrain was still rolling and had some steep sections, the gravel was rideable as we passed Lantern Pike. The views at the summit continued to be stunning, the countryside expanded as far as the eye could see.
We were soon back into the steep gradients and borderline mountain bike terrain that made this day one of the most challenging off-road rides I’ve ever tackled. I’ve never been more thankful for chunky tires as I tried to keep it upright as the bike bounced over the hard slopes. A stroopwafel at the top replenished some of the energy reserves that were quickly depleting at this point in the journey.
We were about halfway down the halfway point, back down to the canals, railing it down the gravel paths effortlessly, chatting about the steepness of the climb we had just passed like it was a distant nightmare. The trees cast dappled shade on the road ahead, and it was a quiet couple of miles rolling in the breeze.
By the time we passed 50km, the pièce de résistance of the entire course was on the remaining trail. It was another brutally steep, ominous berg shrouded in shadow, but this time, the rocks were too big for even those with the most impressive bike handling skills and biggest tires. It was time to go hiking by bike. With sweat and dust on our faces, we were forced to push ourselves to the top of the climb, fighting our way to the top and reaching the point – which occurs during almost all great challenges – where we were seriously reconsidering our choice to take this wild route.
Then came a gift that seemed to have been sent from heaven: the food stand. After cold fizzy drinks, hot espressos, energy bars and sandwiches on soft brioche buns, we were rejuvenated, sugar and carbohydrate pumping, ready to tackle the final tribulations of this gravel adventure.
I subtly checked my Wahoo’s elevation map as we sped down some paved roads, and there was only one red-shaded climb the rest of the way. It was big and daunting, but it was the last of the day. It’s time to dig in, put your head down and seek out that inner north sand.
It started on tarmac, heading deeper into Macclesfield Forest as the gradient increased and the surface of the climb became rockier and harder. Over the course of seven kilometers, the climbing continued, and the relief swept over me as the summit came into view.
But, climbing to the top of the climb, the descent that followed was almost as daunting as the path I had tackled on the climb. Trying to keep my body relaxed, I did my best to navigate the steep descent, jumping large mud bunnies and applying the brakes to the best of my ability. It was one of the most technically difficult sections of the whole route – a mental battle with the voices in my head telling me to put my foot down as much as the physical one.
We headed further into the Macc Forest as the route continued, and the gravel sections between the trees were as close as we got to Tuscan-style roads for the entire ride. The fast, wide descent on comfortable gravel felt like a well-deserved reward after the day we’d had.
Returning to the service course at Wilmslow, the day’s finish, we had time to reflect on the route we had just taken. It had been rough, our legs were burning, and the time on our Wahoo head units was ticking towards five o’clock, but we were still smiling. Our faces red from the day’s sun, our legs bruised and dusty, it had been a gravel walk like no other.
It might not have been the serene and peaceful off-road experience we were hoping for, but that made it all the more fun. It was a day full of obstacles, but we tackled them together, pushing and cheering each other on in an event that epitomized what’s so great about cycling: the community, the friendships made and the ability to reach places and complete challenges you might never have attempted alone.
Ribble Gravel SL
I took on my Peak District challenge aboard the Ribble Gravel SL. It’s the most competitive bike in the British brand’s range of gravel offerings, with the similar downtube seen on the Endurance SL road bike. This meant it performed exceptionally well on the fast downhill sections, rolling at high speed both on and off-road. The carbon frame meant the bike was light, which was an advantage on steep climbs, but that didn’t mean the bike felt any less sturdy.
I used Level’s dedicated gravel wheels, which gave me confidence in even the roughest terrain we encountered on the course, and there was plenty of it. The bike was responsive and I felt it handled exceptionally well, with the Continental Speed King 650b tires giving me smooth control over even the loosest dirt or rocks.
The bike featured SRAM’s 1×11 speed drivetrain which I found to be efficient and gave me a wide enough range for undulating terrain. The only complaint I had was that I was spinning slightly on the longer, steeper descents, but the relatively aero geometry of the bike meant I could remedy that by going down the drops. With the SL, Ribble has struck a perfect balance between a bike that’s built to go fast off-road while maintaining comfort for all-day adventures.
There was little else I could have done to Review the bike throughout our ride, I really put the Ribble SL to the Review and it responded well on every type of terrain, holding its own among much more premium priced bikes. It gave me the confidence to take on every challenge that came my way and there wasn’t much more I could have wanted from the burnt orange whip.