Scotland on Sunday Travel - Self-guided cycling in the Yorkshire Dales will take your breath away

Wilderness England’s new tour lets you ride in the tracks of some of the world’s cycling greats. Abi Jackson tries it out.

Abi Jackson (right) and local diary farmer Diane outside Nan's Ice Cream Shed at the bottom of Trapping Hill, Yorkshire Dales.

According to exercise tracking service Strava, Annemiek van Vleuten holds the women’s top spot for cycling Yorkshire’s Trapping Hill. The Dutch rider raced up this 1.7-mile climb, which hits thigh-burning gradients of 17 per cent, in seven minutes 10 seconds during the 2019 World Championships.

It takes me about three times as long. Then again, my approach is slightly different.

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First, a refreshment stop at Lofthouse village at the bottom of the hill, where dairy farmer Diane has set up ‘Nan’s Ice Cream Shed’ on the roadside. The sun’s blazing, so I top up my factor-30 and fuel up with strawberry ice cream as a buzzard circles overhead and songbirds chirp in the hedges. The only thing racing once get going is my pulse and there won’t be any Strava rankings for me, but being out on the open road on two wheels always feel like a victory.

The Yorkshire Dales play host to a number of major cycling events, including the Tour de France Grand Depart and the World Cycling Championships – and many of the very same routes feature in Wilderness England’s new Self Guided Plus Cycling Tour of Yorkshire, which I’m trying out.

From the same team behind the award-winning Wilderness Scotland and Wilderness Ireland, who’ve been running all sorts of adventure travel trips since 2001 and 2014 respectively, they’d planned to launch this one in 2020, which for obvious reasons wasn’t a great year for travel and hospitality. Now though, with the road to post-pandemic recovery in sight, our appetite for adventure, nature and a sense of freedom has perhaps never been greater – and Yorkshire has these in spades.

This trip’s full five-day itinerary (I’m doing as much as I can in three) takes you on a 192-mile (308km) loop, starting and ending in Pateley Bridge. This may not sound massively challenging distance-wise, but the Dales are hilly. And we’re not just talking the handful of lung-busting corkers you’ll encounter; the whole region is famous for its rolling landscapes. Plus, this is a holiday not a race; the country pubs and cake stops are just as important as conquering those climbs.

With a difficulty grade of ‘blue 6’, the route is at the upper end of ‘moderate to challenging’ (green 1-3 grades are easiest; red 7-9 are toughest). While you don’t have to be a hardcore athlete for this trip, you will need a decent level of cycling experience. There’s always the option to hire an e-bike if your joints and stamina could use a boost, but you’ll still want to be comfortable doing multiple days on the road.

Views of the heath land at the top of Trapping Hill and the valleys beyond.

So, what are you paying for with a self-guided-plus tour? The cycling is self-guided, meaning you and your partner/pals can enjoy the ride at your own pace, without having to merge with strangers – but navigation’s all taken care of, as Wilderness England will supply Garmins with pre-saved route maps. They’ll also sort all your accommodation and you’ll get a dedicated soigneur (support driver), who’ll cart your luggage and be on hand throughout for mechanical support, and generally making sure you’re all set and taken care of.

Will, my soigneur, doubles up as a tour guide, as well as having a canny knack for knowing exactly when I could use a caffeine boost (there’s fresh coffee in the van, as well as snacks and water). Plus, you can hop in the van at any point if you need to. Bikes are either hired (for an extra fee) or you can bring your own.

The accommodation’s a mix of 3-4-star hotels and inns, on a B&B basis. Everywhere I stay has its own charm – a highlight is a yurt at the Black Swan in Ravenstonedale. Lunches and dinners aren’t included, and book ahead for dinner. Your soigneur can help with recommendations, but finding lunch spots won’t be hard, as there are plenty of pubs and cafes, and no shortage of cake stops.

You can stop along the way at tourist hotspots, such as Malham Cove – a 260ft high natural limestone amphitheatre – and Wenselydale Creamery, a great spot for lunch and sampling their famous cheese.

The Black Swan at Ravenstonedale.

It’s the best of both worlds: the convenience of being looked after and someone else doing the organising, yet you still get your own adventure with some lovely long days in the saddle, soaking up the scenery.

My trip starts with glorious blue skies. I cruise past meadows scattered with bluebells, daisies and buttercups so bright it’s like the world’s switched on a filter. Some route sections are on main roads but you’ll spend a lot of time on quiet lanes; for some parts, I encounter more long-horned sheep than traffic.

I ride over bridges, alongside lakes and rippling rivers. Through woodlands and farmlands and sweeping valleys, whose lush green basins are chequered with laithes – old stone barns that are one of the Dales’ distinctive features, alongside its charming villages, vast moors and those hills.

One of the most notable you’ll face is Fleet Moss, one of the UK’s top bike climbs. Approached from the southern side, you’ll be pushing for 2.5km. It starts off gradually, before the final stretch throws up some super-steep bends, hitting those 17 per cent gradients. Will meets me in the van at a tapered point before the climb gets serious; a roadside coffee and chocolate is exactly what I need to power on up.

Nearing the top of Trapping Hill in the Yorkshire Dales

It’s a brute. But at the top, gasps of exhaustion give way to gasps of awe, as I stop wobbly-kneed on the highest road in Yorkshire gazing at a vast blanket of heathy bogland, and the endless humps and dips of the valleys beyond.

My favourite section of the trip is on day five, a 10-mile stretch across a plateau on the way out of Settle near Pen Y Ghent. The sunshine’s gone but the grey sky and growling breeze ramp up the wildness. For a good glorious hour, I am alone in the wilderness, gliding along on top of the world.

How to plan your trip

Wilderness England’s (wildernessengland.com; 01768 721 210) Self Guided Plus+ Cycling Tour of Yorkshire costs from £845pp based on four sharing, including four nights’ B&B accommodation, a Wilderness England soigneur and transfers with Wilderness England

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