In and among the massive uptake in road cycling and mass participation events, it would seem that us roadies are starting to diversify our two wheeled interests. We’re still snapping up the fastest and lightest machines, but the manufacturers have also been looking for ways to appeal to those wanting more. GT realised it with their well-reviewed Grade models, BMC with their GF series. Both of these companies have released machines to satisfy those looking for more than high speed on perfect tarmac. Tyre clearances allow for muguards and bigger, bouncier tyres whilst brazings cater for touring accessories, the geometry allowing riders to cruise all day and still be fresh the next morning. Heck, you could even enjoy a spot of cyclo-cross if that’s what floats your boat.
Previously we looked at the Kinesis ATR, a sublime ride for on and off road adventuring. However, lovely though it was, it was also out of my budget, so once x+1 time came around again I went to see our friends at Harrogate’s Specialized Concept Store and bought the Diverge Smartweld, their go-anywhere gravel muncher that utilises Shimano’s hydraulic disc braking system, 30 mm Roubaix tyres and the zertz dampener system to provide a silky smooth ride day after day.
For readers of this blog, the idea of cycle touring might seem rather off-putting, and having spent time touring on an MTB with a trailer I can understand the thinking. Traditional panniers and trailers can make for an experience that is either ridiculously leisurely or hopelessly unwieldy depending on your point of view. Either way, when your riding style has slipped in to the head-down category, you’ll be wanting to at least be able to retain some of that speed regardless of any desire to look up and smell the flowers.
Thankfully, ever at the forefront of technological development, MTB land has been undergoing a quiet bikepacking revolution (spearheaded in the UK by Apidura and Alpkit) and is providing on bike storage solutions that offer a far more streamlined and efficient experience. Kit can be stashed under the bars, inside the frame, under the saddle… Basically all the places that won’t cause you to clip your heels or wobble uncontrollably at speed, and the road world is starting to sit up and listen.
Of course, this assumes you’ll be traveling really light, and since this is Yorkshire (and because sleeping under just a tarp has never appealed), for my latest adventure I went for a compromise. There was still no way the panniers were coming back, but the rack provided somewhere for the 2 man tent and sleeping bag to sit, whilst the lightweight clothing, sleeping mat and wash kit got jammed in to the regular Saddle Pack that Apidura kindly lent me to play with for a few months. An old bar bag got pressed back in to action up front alongside a very useful little handlebar smart phone mount that Liddle had on offer for the princely sum of £9 a few weeks before.
A massive recommendation needs to go to Strava for its Live service that, when coupled with a suitably long lasting phone, could almost be a Garmin killer. Using a utilitarian Motorola Moto E, I got a fifty-mile route with live mapping on the go and after four hours of leisurely riding and refreshments had still only munched half the battery life. Not bad eh? Actually, it’s not all great – the route planning with heat map sourcing on Strava is doubtless fine if you’re new in town and want a local circuit, but for the purposes of this trip I used Google Maps to plan my journey, taking advantage of its integration with Sustrans’ National Cycle Network to plot a route that typically hovered between idyllic and sublime and all the while plotting a pretty direct course.
This weekend I was heading out to Chop Gate in the North Yorkshire Moors with the purpose of joining up with some friends that were overnighting as part of a two-day trail race. The bike, fully loaded though it was, performed superbly on the flats heading out towards Thirsk. With a slight tail wind and my head down I was comfortably overtaking more leisurely cyclists; the nicely streamlined kit making the ride, if not effortless, certainly pretty acceptable. I’d gone across the Vale of York and across to the foot of the notorious White Horse Bank climb before I knew it.
Now White Horse was always going to be the most challenging part of the day, and I was hugely grateful for the Diverge’s wide span of gears that allowed me to stay seated most of the way up. Although the Saddle Pack did itself proud on the trip, they are recommended only for putting the lighter items in to since there is no avoiding a tendency for the back end to fish-tail when you’re stood up and attacking switch-backs that hit 20-25% in places. Machismo went out the window as I found the ice cream van parked in the car park two thirds of the way up, and I happily forfeited the kudos of doing the whole thing at once for the regenerative properties of an ice-cream and a can of lemonade.
Refreshed, I finished off the remains of the 175 metre, >11% average road and headed to the National Park Visitors Centre for a bite to eat. Being pitifully low on cash for a weekend adventure, it was with great relief that the guys at Sutton Bank Bikes were kind enough to facilitate a makeshift cash-back facility to get me through the next couple of days. I left with a full stomach (plus a mental note to return on the Diverge to test out their new off-road trails another day) and made my way across to Chop Gate where I pitched my tent for the night and enjoyed a terrific meal at the local.
The next day’s route had not been planned – I figured if I could make my way towards the market town of Helmsley, get in to the general direction of Ampleforth Abbey and find the terrific Sustrans Route 66 (a glorious tour of the Yorkshire Wolds and Howardian Hills) then it’d be fine, and it was. Like the vast majority of Sustrans routes, it’s aimed at cyclists whose wheels are less than skinny and takes in little-visited bridal paths, single-track farm roads and whatever else is going to give you the best views and the least traffic – awful for bunch riding, stunning for touring. Rolling past freshly harvested fields, ancient abbeys and over the toll bridge at Aldwark and with little of the climbing that day one had involved, it didn’t seem long before Harrogate appeared and my first real foray in to bikepacking was over. The first, but by no means the last.