If your only impression of mountain biking in the Peak District is of bleak moorlands, gritstone outcrops and technical, rocky riding, this new circular loop could be quite an eye-opener for you. Taking in beautiful dales, deciduous woodland and lush open countryside, the South Peak loop is a great multi-day trip or a tough one day challenge.
Recently opened by the Chief Executive of the Peak District National Park Sarah Fowler, the South Peak loop was created by horse-riding advocacy group Peak Horsepower. It traverses bridleways, broad farm tracks and quiet country lanes through the White Peak and is the sister route to PHP’s Kinder loop. More importantly, us cyclists can ride it too.
The terrain is for the most part fairly untechnical, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is an easy loop. Even if split over two days you’re likely to be out for several hours each day, whilst ticking the whole 70 miles off in a “oner” is going to be a serious proposition for all but the fittest rider. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the many flat sections; they’re accompanied by some big climbs!
The loop is a varied mix of farm track, quiet country lanes, field-crossings, converted railways and a sprinkling of singletrack. If you get your mountain bike kicks from railing berms and nailing jumps, you might find a lot of this route a bit tame. It’s an “old school” ride; a ride where you cover some miles in glorious scenery rather than going round forests in man-made circles honing your technique. Taking in the Manifold Valley, Carsington Reservoir, the Chatsworth Estate and stunning Chee Dale to name a few highlights, this is a route to savour. Think of it as a beautiful cycle tour that regularly heads off-road rather than a technically demanding mountain bike loop.
There is plenty of good, challenging mountain biking on the loop though. The often slippery climb through Lees Moor Wood to Calton pastures above Chatsworth is always satisfying, whilst the narrow Gratton Dale looks like it will be a steady uphill spin until it throws in little nadgery rocky sections that may find you putting in a cheeky dab whilst no one is looking. The steep, alternately grassy, loose and rocky climb from Chee Dale is also a wake up call after the preceding easy miles.
The official loop deliberately avoids arguably the most fun bit of bridleway and that’s Ballcross Woods (AKA Bakewell golf course downhill), included on this Strava route. This is a short but very sweet downhill that is frequently muddy and often slippy. Depending on the line you choose it also has some fab man-made features to further satisfy your inner Danny Hart. Be warned though, not all the features are roll-able so please don’t go into this blind or you may come a cropper. If in doubt, take the official road descent.
When should you ride it?
Being mostly limestone terrain there are sections that don’t drain very well and many of the field crossings could be a drag after extended wet weather. Polished limestone can be rather slippery when wet too. Best to let it dry off a little and then the grass sections will be fast rolling and fun rather than slow and draggy, and the rockier sections grippy. I suspect a cold and frosty winter’s day would be a great time to do it too.
This loop takes in the very popular multi-user Tissington and Monsal trail, not to mention Carsington reservoir. They will be busy in good weather and at weekends, but provided you’re not out for Strava times this shouldn’t be a big problem. There’s definitely a sweet spot for when to ride this loop. I rode it in spring; the daffodils brightened up the trails and the fields were full of bouncing little lambs and young deer. Other than Gratton Dale – which was a river – nowhere was too wet and muddy to ride.
What bike for…?
Nowhere is this route desperately technical so if you’re lucky enough to have a choice of bikes, bring something on the XC-end of the spectrum. Fast-rolling and efficient are more important than big tyres and lots of suspension. The Monsal Trail is a 7 mile section of ever-so-slightly uphill converted railway that never allows you to freewheel, and there’s plenty of road work too. Whatever bike you choose for this ride, make sure you are comfortable pedalling in the saddle for extended periods of time.
Is it any good then?
Definitely. Ride it with mates. Do it over 2 days (or more). Take time to stop and take in the views. This is a loop with ample opportunity to ride side-by-side and have a chat. The long, straight, flat, pedally sections can get a bit tedious if you don’t like your own company, so make this a social event.
Nowhere does this route stray too far from civilisation and there are ample opportunities to bail out, so whilst doing it in one day is a big challenge, it’s a relatively benign one; pubs and cake shops are never too far away. Having done it myself over two separate days, my recommendation would be to do this as a 2-dayer, stopping overnight in one of the many fine options for accommodation. I can recommend the Royal Oak at Hurdlow which is an easy diversion off the route and offers bunkhouses, camping and great food and ale, but you’re spoilt for choice really.
What else do you need to know?
Peak Horsepower have done a great job creating this route, but the maps and route descriptions from their website have a small handful of errors or inconsistencies and the signage is OK but not great, with some sparsely sign-posted sections. This is a new route so this can definitely be forgiven, but if you spot any problems, errors or suggested improvements whilst out on the loop, please let them know by filling in the questionnaire on their website. Maps and route descriptions can be downloaded from their website too; take both as well as an OS map and dont rely on the signs alone. The route is rideable in either direction but to make the most of the route descriptions ride it anti-clockwise. Riding it clockwise does, however, mean the long Monsal Trail drag is ever-so-slightly downhill.
I’ve heard that someone has ridden the whole 70 mile loop in 8 hours. That’s bloomin’ good going but not impossible, but I suspect you’ll need to know your way and not be stopping much (if at all). For mortal “weekend warriors” this could easily be a 10 – 12 hour day. Please let us know on our Facebook page or Twitter if you ride this route, especially if you beat that 8 hour 1 day effort. Get out there and enjoy it.