Tour of Calderdale

View of Tour of Calderdale

It’s one of the quirks of cycling that while most of the time we seek out the smoothest possible road surfaces, many of us are drawn irresistibly by the romantic lure of cobbled roads. Taking on the toughest, roughest roads has the same kind of appeal to some as attempting to climb the steepest, highest passes in the Alps and Pyrenees have for others.

You could head over to Belgium and northern France to ride the famous roads that feature in some of pro cycling’s greatest races – the legendary Arenberg Trench of Paris-Roubaix, or the steep cobbled Steenbeekdries climb of the Tour of Flanders, for example. But here in Britain, we have our fair share of roads that can compete with these for sheer brutality. Calderdale in West Yorkshire is arguably the best area where cobbles are still found in Britain, so we sent Matt Page there to test our cobbles-busting bikes in our very own Hell of the North. It was a testing day on the bike, as Matt recalls…

‘When you think of cobbles and bikes in Britain, your mind may instantly conjure up images of the famous Hovis TV advert. But while that ad wasn’t filmed in Yorkshire but Dorset, the county has become known as the cobbles capital of Britain – or should we say ‘sett’ capital. Our guides for today are a couple of local riders: Emma Osenten, from Hebden Bridge who has formerly organized events in the area, and Gareth Helliwell, a local expert from Halifax who is a multiple-time finisher of the Ronde Van Calderdale, a local sportive inspired by the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). It’s not long before they’re putting me right on the terminology.

‘“Strictly speaking, cobbles are rounded and unworked whereas the majority of paved roads, including the roads in Yorkshire and Northern Europe, are setts, which are squared-off granite rocks,” Emma explains. If you are French, or just want to sound like a true cyclist, then pave is the preferred term.

‘There’s still a surprising amount of pave around in Yorkshire, with certain climbs and sections having been used in races such as the Tour de Yorkshire UCI pro race and the Ronde Van Calderdale, so we’re lucky to be in the hands of two excellent guides who know the best roads to seek out.

‘Meeting in Halifax early on a January morning with the rain falling, it doesn’t look likely to be a good day but, as if by magic, the minute we start riding the rain stops, giving us a positive outlook for the day ahead.

Halifax is a fairly typical northern town with a big industrial heritage that is still evident. Leaving the city, the roads are busy, but it isn’t long before we turn off the A-road and with our legs having barely started turning, Emma is already warning of the first pave section.

‘Shibden Wall is first on the menu. “It is really steep and rough,” Emma warns. “Riders in the Tour de Yorkshire actually had to walk up it!”

Shibden Wall is unmistakable. Featured in an edition of the 1988 Tour of Britain, it is the first major challenge of the Ronde and comes after 40 miles.

‘Yikes! A quick glance across at her to see if she might be trying to scare me gives nothing away, but with a smallest gear of 34×32, it will surely be possible to ride up, right? The climb builds gradually, and the lower tarmac section is relatively easy, the surface only changing to setts as it steepens nearer the top. The most famous and hardest section is the incredibly tight hairpin bend where the inside line looks almost vertical, but thankfully the outside is more gradual and although it is without a doubt bumpy, the surface ison the whole pretty good. As we climb further, we pass a team of workers repairing some broken setts, which is great to see as it would no doubt be cheaper to simply tarmac over – but what a waste that would be!

‘The first 10km seems to be a rollercoaster, either steeply up or down as we ride through various suburbs of the town, each a little more rural as we top out in Mount Tabor before a seriously fast and twisty descent into Luddenden then turn off the small road onto something even smaller. Passing the sign “Unsuitable for Motors” it gives an idea of what is ahead. Gareth obviously knows this road well, clicking down the gears in preparation then wishing us “Good Luck” before easing up Old Lane.

‘If Shibden Wall was an 8/10 for difficulty, this one goes all the way up to 11. It averages 20%, which is steep for any road, let alone one where the setts are rough and slippery due to the lack of cars using it. As the climb progresses, it steepens and about 50 meters from the end, while Gareth is cresting the summit ahead of me, my rear wheel slips and I have to bail out. Restarting on the climb is impossible, but I refuse to be defeated, so I head back down to the bottom, lose some air from the rear tyre in the hope of improving grip and have another crack. This time, despite a few small slips, I make it all the way up – but then spend the next five minutes trying to get my breath back!

‘The next section is mercifully much flatter, giving me a chance to recover from what is a very cruel start to a ride. Riding through Sowerby Bridge and back towards Halifax itself, the history of the area is clear all around, not least in the shape of Wainhouse Tower, which has the accolade of being the World’s tallest folly. The climb towards the tower is the site of another cobbled climb, although this one is much tamer and smoother at a mere 8%.

With so much covered, and so many features and climbs so far it is a little bewildering to look down and see only 23km on the computer. After what seems like the briefest of easy sections we roll into the bottom of Trooper Lane. Gareth has grim memories of this one as it is usually the last big climb on the Ronde Van Calderdale route. It is open to traffic, which makes it less slippery than Old Lane, but what starts as a steep tarmac climb turns to setts at gradients that must be above 25% in places. The final kick is a brute, but if you know you’re nearing the top you can at least try to save something for this final kick. Tobe the final climb at the end of a 100-mile event must be agony!

Overlooking the village of Luddenden, Old Lane is flagged by a pair of walls, highlighting the gradient.

‘From the top of Trooper Lane the route starts to change. After a swift descent into Brighouse it isn’t long before we are in the countryside and even though we are climbing gradually and tracking the M62, on a decent day the views start to open up overlooking Halifax. It might not be the quietest of roads, but it feels swift enough today when the wind dies down a little.

‘As we turn off, back onto a single-track road, we head towards Cop Hill where the change from the bustle of urban to quiet countryside couldn’t be more dramatic with endless green fields and stone walls dotted all around the narrow, twisting lanes. The stunning and tranquil roads do unfortunately have to end and we find ourselves back among vehicles and surrounded by buildings. A few kickers bring a slice of dejâ-vu as we end up shadowing the M62, albeit heading in the opposite direction.

‘What was a nice, long and rather quick descent into Brighouse is more of a long drag with tired legs at the end of a tough day, but from the top it is all downhill back to Halifax and a good way to round off what has been a memorable ride. From the industrial, urban start with its killer climbs, challenging paved sections to the peaceful, green surroundings of Cop Hill it is a route that definitely feels like a ride of two halves, both of which are tough to beat. But for an even bigger challenge, there is always the Ronde Van Calderdale!

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