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OPINION

"We’ve Come On Gravel Bikes By Mistake": Taking on the inaugural Tor Divide bikepacking epic in the brutal Peak District

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VecchioJo rides, and pushes, the inaugural Tor Divide

I suppose the signs that it was going to be a tough day were there right from the off.

After just a few minutes of cruising along the valley floor we wheel left, and immediately click through all the gears to climb the Mam Nick road up Mam Tor in one of the more unnecessarily brutal starts to a cycling event I think I’ve done.

If we think this might be the prelude to a difficult day, then the few people who are already off and walking not long after the 16% sign are going to face an even more punishing one. Thankfully the weather is on our side, and the slowly unfolding view over our left shoulders is mostly worth the too soon effort and after 2km of climbing and within sight of the top we dog leg back north and head off road.

The track is greasy after heavy overnight rain and it’s still a bit too early to deal with a squirming bike on insufficiently grippy tyres, but we’re not alone in finding conditions challenging already. Everyone around us is dabbing and fluffing as they attempt to find their groove through the ruts, rocks and slide. 

Tor Divide - Mam Nick Road Climb.JPG

This is just the intro of the Tor Divide, a play-on words on the Tour Divide which is the granddaddy of endurance off-road cycling events that follows the length of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to the Mexican border; although the Tor Divide is a fraction of that one’s 2,745 miles at 'only' 243 kilometres, and it’s just a figure-of-eight loop around the Peak District rather than the length of a large country, but it does have more tors. There is a shorter Tor Divide option of the Millstone route of 163km with only about 3,500m of ascent to deal with if the longer distance, and its corresponding number of over 4,500 metres of climbing, is a bit much for you.

Tor Divide - Cut Gate View.JPG

The Tor Divide is a fixed route unsupported event designed to be ridden as a single stage, crossing the Peak District up, over and along every surface you can imagine: forest trails, bridleways, singletrack and quiet scenic roads, rock, gravel and bog.

As a self-supported event riders can decide where and when to eat or sleep, as long as they follow the format principles and only use facilities available to all, and don’t get any pre-arranged outside assistance. To be listed as a finisher, riders have to complete one of the two routes in less than 36 hours; although like most events of this kind, there are no prizes for rolling in first. There is a pizza and beer for everyone at the end though.

Tor Divide - Mam Tor View.JPG

After traversing the shadow of the hill we bump along the pavement slabs of the Mam Tor ridge path, and as it’s still before breakfast we annoy the minimum of walkers before turning sharp left and bouncing downhill to the safety of a short stretch of tarmac, only 6 kilometres in and already it’s been exciting.

There are bits on the next stretch that I remember from a very long while ago when I used to come here mountain biking, and this was a classic route. While my gravel bike with tubeless tyres, disc brakes, all the gears and confident handling is considerably more reassuring off-road than my racey cross-country bike from back then, it’s still quite a handful at times. It doesn’t help that the paths have changed a lot since then, and to try to stave off erosion from foot fall and wheel rub, barrowloads of stone and rock have been thrown down to carpet and protect the trails.

I do remember the water bars as we drop downhill on the way to Hope Cross, and I recall the river and ensuing steep climb out of Jaggers Clough which is now a definite loose surface dismount and trudge. Maybe on a full-suspension mountain bike and with a decent pair of legs you’d have half a chance. 

Tor Divide - Jaggers Clough.JPG

Bike selection was the matter of much discussion, as the route notes admit that the first loop taking in most of the Dark Peak is definitely more mountain bike-friendly, whilst the second loop around the more genteel White Peak favours a gravel bike. The manual says the best bike is the one you already of course, but it says a gravel bike with the fattest tyres you could fit would be manageable... we had those.

Just how much the northern loop was MTB-biased was more significant than anticipated, and any sluggishness on the tarmac or more hardpacked sections on a mountain bike would more than be made up for in speed, control, rideability and comfort off-road. If I were to ride this again I’d bring a lightweight hardtail mountain bike with fast running tyres. Individual bike choice on display showed that everyone would be on the right bike at some point, a totally inappropriate one somewhere else, and a pair of feet often as there was everything from full suspension mountain bikes through all the subsets of gravel bikes to things that were quite scarily cyclo-crossy.

The first riders home on both the long and short courses did so in 11 and 13 hours respectively, and both were on lightweight full suspension bikes. This probably speaks volumes as to time saved on the rocky bits versus any tardiness on the smoother sectors. I think of the plus-size tyred rigid mountain bike sat in my front room often.

Tor Divide - Bike Choices.JPG

I’m with partner Claire and we’re used to this sort of thing. With plans for bigger rides later in the year this could be good practice, so our plan is to try and complete it in one hit. There is a Plan B to kip in the van for a bit, as the route handily loops back to Edale at the end of the northern half before beginning the southern one.

Our bikes, both gravel ones with chunky 650b rubber on, are only half weighed down with mandatory and just-in-case kit. We’re bikepacking lite and hope to move swiftly. We have the obligatory battery packs, bivy bags, waterproofs, warm hats, extra warm clothes and sleeping kit if we decided we need to ride through the night and/or kip down for a bit. There are snacks and tools and spares and tubes and the usual grubble that comes along to make the bikes a bit more of a lump than a naked one. 

Tor Divide - Froggatt Edge Rocks.JPG

The Tor Divide is the brainchild of Valerio Stuart, an Italian who moved to Manchester in 2014 to study and decided to stay. Untypically he has a long history with basketball, but started cycling during lockdown as a way to stay sane and things escalated from there.

Dipping his tyres into bikepacking he was disappointed by the lack of local groups and beginner-friendly events, with the only options seeming to be 600km and longer ultra epic races, something he didn’t want to attempt on his own with no previous experience.

His intention with the Tor Divide is to provide a safe environment and opportunity for first time bikepackers to test themselves against a challenging route without the need to jump straight into a gruelling multi-day race, and yet offer a tough and varied enough route to keep experienced riders entertained for a day or so. Valerio wanted to conjure up something that treads the fine line between not being too easy and yet still challenging and rewarding, not too expensive so that it’s still accessible, and not too sanitised so that it’s still representative of unsupported bikepacking, and also to showcase the beauty of the Peak District. That’s a hell of a lot to ask of an event and in many ways it succeeded, in other ways it was maybe a bit too much to expect.

Tor Divide - Mam Tor Descent.JPG

There are lots of reasons to applaud Valerio for what he’s trying to do. On top of all this the Tor Divide did its best to minimise the impact of the event, as 150 riders can make quite the dent on landscape. Participants were encouraged to travel sustainably and arrive by public transport, helped by a train station a stone’s throw from the start. Riders were offered a small refund if they travelled more than 10 miles to get to the event using public transport or cycling.

On top of this, the Tor Divide raised £920 for RIDE Sheffield. £5 of each entry went towards the group that uses the collective might of Sheffield’s mountain bike community to improve, preserve and promote access interests for off-road cyclists in the area. Also the start schwag was actually useful with a Styrkr energy bar, a pair of GRVL socks and overnight tub of Happy Bottom Bum Butter chamois cream. 

Tor Divide - Stone Wall.JPG

There was no mass start and riders left whenever they were ready. As we woke up late and had quite a faffy morning despite being parked within sight of the Village Hall start HQ, we were among the last to leave and spent all day catching up with riders and riding with them for short whiles, which gives us a great insight as to the demographic of riders attracted by the Tor Divide. It’s everyone from complete first timers to hardened bikepacking veterans, and as is common with bikepacking there was a larger than usual percentage of female participants. Nowhere near the 50/50 split that some events strive for, but still encouraging in the world of cycling sausagefests. 

Tor Divide - Hagg Farm Climb.JPG

The first hike-a-bike is noted down in the expansive event manual as Cut Gate, but that’s at least 10km away. We’re off already and pushing up a steep sunken rocky lane to get over the hill and down to Derwent Dam. To compensate for this slow progress there’s a few easy kilometres alongside the Upper Derwent and Howden reservoirs before we strike up the valley. Before long we're pushing up that published hike-a-bike, but this is a lengthy old tramp and the open moor across the hill is decorated by a sporadic line of brightly coloured dots of pushing riders. Every so often there’s a stoic rideable bit, but resistance is futile. Walking supported by a bike continues soon after.

Tor Divide - Cut Gate Pavement Bridge.JPG

The descent off Cut Gate is thankfully mostly rideable, although boggy and interesting in places. The rider on an e-MTB who had just ridden up looked pitifully at our machines and wished us a cheerful good luck. It is largely a giggle but line choice is critical in getting a smooth run. Considering the wet season or two we’ve had it could have been a lot, lot worse.

As it is if conditions had been a little more Peak-like over the weekend, and if it was a fresh ten degrees with a perma-drizzle instead of a glorious weekend of horizon wide 20º sunshine this whole escapade would have been a very different undertaking, with underlying levels of Type 2 misery and a need for new brake pads every few hours. 

Tor Divide - Another Push.JPG

We stop in Langsett for refreshments, avoiding the Bank View Cafe which is surprised by a sudden tsunami of slightly grubby but very peckish cyclists, and head instead over the road to the quieter pub where service is a lot quicker because time is slipping through our spokes. It has taken us 4 hours to do 35km. Phoooof, average speed here is sluggish.

Making the route a figure of eight circling through Edale was a good idea, as it’s a handy safety net for less experienced riders, or if riders felt the initial loop was too much for them. Many had camped in the organised field, so there was both the lure and the safety of that rather than the fear of being stuck in the middle of nowhere on top of a hill on a larger single loop or point-to-point course.

The train station also provided a handy bail out option too. Quite few riders switched to the shorter second loop after a tougher than expected longer loop, which seemed like a reasonable compromise if you wanted to have a nice time on your bike and not put yourself in the uncomfortably miserable place just to make it round.

Many riders did the ride 'supported' by not taking bags with them, and using the campsite in Edale as a mid-ride supply base. These riders didn’t get to have their names down as official finishers, as Valerio wanted the Tor Divide to be an unsupported bikepacking event. I suspect most of those riders don’t really care as the experience was validation enough. Of the 149 starters about half finished the routes as unsupported finishers, which is quite the attrition rate and suggests that the Tor Divide stepped a bit too far towards the challenging rather than the inclusive. 

Tor Divide - Austonley Road.JPG

We take a short diversion mid-afternoon to visit a large Tesco and shovel food in, as it’s definitely past shovelling food in time now as we watch the normal world go by while we sit grubby and hungry.

The Tor Divide encourages participants to use the least amount of single-use plastic possible, and to consider taking part in the event plastic-free if possible. The bikepacking way of diving into petrol stations and supermarkets for food and grabbing all kinds of packaged foods is obviously wasteful and has an impact, and there’s a list of requirements to fulfil this plastic-free way with the first finishers to accomplish this getting their event fee-refunded. While the amount of plastic use does bother us every time we do these sorts of things, we’re not doing this. Soz!

Tor Divide - Trees.JPG

 

Tor Divide - Marsden Climb.JPG

 

Tor Divide - Aerial Gravel.JPG

 

Tor Divide - Jacobs Ladder Light Push.JPG

As happens with big romps in the hills, the day nestles in the brain as a series of snapshots where names and places blur and mean little as we cover every Peak surface and landscape. There’s the bit through the trees, the shitty busy bit through Glossop, the climb out of Marsden where we get heckled by a housewife, the dry sticky cleat stumble into a stone wall, the swapping tales at the pub, the car park disabled toilet and the tongue out descent after Winscar until we’re at the bottom of the last obstacle of the first loop, and coincidentally the day.

Jacob’s Ladder is the sharpest and highest spike on the profile for the entire Tor Divide, and while its initial slope is tarmac, we’re soon off and walking again as it looks like someone’s lazily chucked Brighton beach between the walls... and it’s a long walk. Brief conversations are struck up with fellow plodders as we pass each other, then there's the well-earned reward of a descent into the dusk and back into Edale... apart from there wasn’t.

The other side of Jacob’s Ladder is more of a rocky gulleyed mess than the climb up, and it’s a frustrating skittering walk down. Back in my more youthful mountain biking days I remember giving a good old go at climbing up this side, and it was mostly doable apart from a few rocky bits and the infamous step towards the top. Sadly none of this would be possible now. At the Packhorse Bridge the path flattens off in every way and is swoopable down the valley to Edale where we divert briefly to the pub to mull over our options. 

Tor Divide - Jacobs Ladder Pushing Down.JPG

This first loop has taken considerably longer than anticipated, and we’re both a little battered by it all, so it doesn’t take much discussion to decide not to carry on deeper into the night, and instead kip in the van that’s parked handily round the corner for a few hours

We'd get up just before dawn to begin the second loop, which does mean that we break the self-supported rules of the Tor Divide. If we’d have slept in the pub garden we’d have been fine, but you know, van with bed in. Speaking to various people the next day, it seems that this was an option quite a few have chosen as the first day has been a lot tougher than many had planned for. 

Tor Divide - Morning Push Tree.JPG

We wake at 4am just as dawn is smudging and have a breakfast of whatever is in the door pockets of the van. Before too long a tarmac climb turns to dirt up Mam Tor, and we're pushing with a heavy sigh once again.

Blinking rear lights ahead indicate that a pair of other riders have had the same idea, and we yo-yo with them for the rest of the morning. We drop down the other side of Mam Tor on the iconic broken road and past the parked lines of van lifers who appear to have made this part of the world their home. We meander up and down the south side of the Hope Valley as another day of good weather unfurls itself. It's fantastically beautiful riding, even pedalling through the picturesque landmark of the cement factory has its charms, and we roll into Hathersage for breakfast mere minutes before the petrol station Nisa stores opens. Perfect.

We share chat and a random assortment of snacks with Steve, who’s riding the shorter route on a single-speed (like an idiot) and then chunk on up the long steady climb out of town and back onto the top of the moor. It’s on tarmac, which after the ravages of the day before is fine by us. It’s a draggy climb though, into a sticky headwind up past Higger Tor, but at Upper Burbage we jink right off the road and onto a 'This Makes It All Worth It' gravel path that gently slopes down the valley in a whoop of freewheeling smiles which continue through perfect National Trust country. We continue along Froggatt Edge and then speedily through the immaculate deer decorated grounds of Chatsworth House like we shouldn’t really be there. It’s all really very pleasant riding, which helps to smooth away all of yesterday’s efforts and walking tedium.

Tor Divide - White Peak Tree.JPG

 

Tor Divide - Pennine Bridleway Path.JPG

The White Peak does make for a far easier and more gravel bike-friendly ride. There are even bits that have an air of the Strada Bianche about them, especially on a sunny day, and the second part of the lower loop is largely on the disused railways lines that now form part of the Pennine Bridleway and Tissington Trail. This makes for swift progress as we mix it up with more leisure cyclists, although the climb up High Peak Junction incline is a shock to the legs after a lot of easy spinning, as is another grassy lean into it push out of Blackwell Mill.

Finally we plummet down Mam Nick as a glorious payback for having to climb it a morning ago, and roll into the finish to claps and cheers from those already done and sprawling on the sun-baked car-park tarmac. Classic bikepacking.

The free pizza from Proove Pizza is one of the best I’ve ever had, end of big ride hunger notwithstanding, and the free beer from Thornbridge Brewery does a little to settle the day’s dust.

Tor Divide - Final Push.JPG

So that was… hard. As an event promoted to provide a safe environment and opportunity for first time bikepackers I think it was a far more challenging route than a lot of people had been led to believe, and whilst people like to push themselves a little on rides like this it’s always tricky to work out where the teddy throwing point is, and that’s a line which is different for everyone.

Speaking to the organiser Valerio, he realises that he may have under-egged the pudding a bit, and a change in pre-ride notes would go a long way to making the grit of the ride clearer. He's considering a less technical option for first timers in future editions.

Everyone we spoke to along the way said it was way harder than they expected, but they were all cheerful about it, and as is the way if we should ever bump into them on another trail on another hill we’ll talk about the event, because a lot like childbirth we’ll have forgotten about the pain and just remember the fun anecdotes.

Valerio gets to both hear the complaints and see the pleasure, and while the former will eat at him he’ll take more from the latter: the mum and her 13-year-old daughter riding as a pair and finishing just before the 36 hour cut off on Sunday with a big hug and some tears. The rider with only six months riding experience and a prosthetic leg doing the full northern loop, not giving up and who was back at the venue for celebrations on Sunday after riding the shorter southern loop. The rider who had forgotten their shoes at home in London so drove back on Friday night, came back to Edale in the morning, started with one hour of sleep and finished in sub 24hrs on their gravel bike. The rider who had a broken crank arm on the first day who got his daughter to pick them up, take him to a bike shop, get the bike sorted and back on the trail only for his rear mech to snap on the second day which he botched a repair and rode the rest of the route single speed. 

Tor Divide - Cut Gate Push.JPG

I'll say it again... that was hard. Both Claire and I enjoy a demanding ride and pointing a bike down something well beyond its design brief, but the Tor Divide bordered on the 'fukthis' a few times, mainly the bits that weren’t a ride but a push. Thankfully the good weather made any grumbling far more bearable, while memory has already faded some of the worst bits. It was a tough day or two out, but we made it too tough for ourselves by mistake. 

Here are some more photos of the event from Connor Furness 
Find out more on the Tor Divide website

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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3 comments

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mattw | 5 days ago
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A great right up.

This intrigues me - what did this have to do with anything?

"the car park disabled toilet"

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Wingguy | 1 month ago
1 like

Great write up - knowing a lot of those off road sections though I'd be amazed if a full suss XC bike wasn't the fastest overall option regardless of how much tarmac there is inbetween!

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glenjamin | 1 month ago
3 likes

I did this event too - I live locally and knew the south loop already, but didn't know the north loop after Cut Gate

You've managed to sum this up brilliantly!

I threw all my time goals out of the window by the time I got to Marsden, riding a 650b gravel bike with a 31x34 I ended up pushing up a lot of hills, and I managed to use about 10 sticky worms in my rear tyre.

But did I enjoy it? You bet! Especially once I stopped chasing a time and just made sure I was going to make the cutoff, I had quite a few leisurely cafe stops on the Sunday.

19 hours moving, 33 elapsed. If I come back next year I'll take my hardtail

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