Stef Brooks is the Store Manager at Pitsford. Stef started cycling in 1994, in his first year he rode the Wainrights Coast to Coast and 5 years later moved onto the Etape du Tour, finishing in an impressive 8 hours. Stef has undertaken many charity events over the years and has raised a huge £20,000. Stef switched from road to gravel/canal riding in 2016 and next year will be taking on a 200km gravel ride in Scotland, the Paris-Roubaix solo, and a 24hr canal ride.
I love the challenge of canal riding and decided some 4 years ago to do the whole 2000 miles of the canal network. Thinking I could ride from Leicester to London in one day along the tow path set me off. For a roadie like myself, a trip to London in a day, and back the following, on the bike would be no bother, so why not? Well try 4 punctures the first time and not even reaching Foxton Locks. A broken rim the second time and the third I got as far as Crick before my back, neck and wrists had failed me. After that I did it in stages Crick to Milton Keynes, MK to Rickmansworth and after trying a hard tail MTB, a cycle cross bike, Full-sus MTB I finally stumbled across a Gravel bike whilst riding along the tow paths in Birmingham.
The thing is, you cannot settle into any real rhythm. Pedestrians/Runners have right of way, hundreds off bridges to go under, and almost all the way you need to be ready to stop as you can't see around the bend. The terrain is impossible to predict unless you travel a section regular, it's anything goes. For long distance tow path riding, it really is ALL about the bike. Having completed Nottingham to Long Eaton, Leicester to London, Snarestone to Coventry, Sawley to Fradley, Fradley to Watling street Bridge, and Bath to Bradford-on-Avon, I was very much looking forward to the Leeds-Liverpool challenge.
Day 1 - Leeds to Gargrave 36 miles.
I arrive in Leeds at midday with the September weather overcast but warm. Having put the wheels back on the bike and ensuring I have the right kit on, off I go. The start is full of cobbles until I jump on the cycle network, which is swamped by runners. It's a good 17 miles before I lose the tarmac and I'm on gravel. Even on the tarmac the going is slow with bad surfacing and cobbles under every bridge and a very strong head wind. Canal riding is relatively flat with the odd lock to cycle up or down, however on the Leeds-Liverpool canal the locks are steeper and longer than those I have encountered before.
Bingley Five Rise Locks feels like 20% but the tow path is wide enough to cycle up with out upsetting pedestrians. The Five-Rise is the steepest flight of locks in the UK. I'm now out in the open with little tree cover and stunning scenery and can feel the strength of the wind. Gravel turning to hard mud and the tow path slowly disappearing. It's a good hard 12 miles before I'm reaching Skipton, welcomed by a large stoned towpath. The towpath quickly disappears and is a bumpy 5 mile ride to the Premier Inn Gargrave which is on the canal. The Garden Centre next door kindly let me wash the mud from the bike before heading off for some fantastic food at the Masons Arms, a well worth mile walk into the town.
Day 2 Gargrave to Wigan 55 miles.
I woke up to the ground being wet and a chilly September head wind. From the outset, mud and puddles were going to be a factor so out come the waterproof socks. With my cyclocross skills at the ready, my tyres are struggling for grip in the wet. That would normally be fun but when you have the canal close by, make sure your phone is in a waterproof bag in your pocket. The views I'm sure are amazing but until I get to tarmac I'm too focused on the towpath in front. Its not too long until I get to the highest lock (91 in total on the Leeds-Liverpool canal) and it's all downhill now. Luckily the large cobbles are dry so descending is not too sketchy on the Barrowford flight. Shortly, I come to the Foulridge tunnel and with all canals you need to find your way back onto the canal as they are rarely signed. This is were my Garmin Explore comes into its own as I can zoom in and out of the mapping and I only take a very slight detour before I'm back on track.
I ask any pedestrians where I am as you do not have any sign posts and I'm in Burnley very soon. I take a sharp right under a bridge and the towpath becomes a mix of Gravel and cobbles. Very soon the second Tunnel arrives, and this is tricky as the towpath has been closed for construction and I'm in a shopping park in Burnley but I soon get back on track. Its not long before the towpath has disappeared again and I'm on grass, out in the open with the wind in my face but I seem to have a nice rhythm going, I do stop to take in the view and enjoy the solitude, and take a bite to eat. Blackburn is the next big city on the route and I'm quickly through and passing by Chorley and arriving at Addlington. Not far from Wigan now I pick up the cycle network which is laughable as the gate is in a deep puddle and the towpath (or Cycle network) is an inch deep in mud and several deep puddles, certainly not what you would expect. Added to this are several gates that you must dismount and squeeze your bike through!
At the final gate you are on the outskirts of Wigan, here I have my hotel waiting but my legs still want to keep going and its only 2 o'clock. After a phone call to my wife who is lost in Wigan town centre we decided to stick to the original plan. I ended up doing 62 miles in the end.
Day 3 Wigan to Liverpool 36 miles.
After a nice lie in I head off to Wigan Pier (that's not a pier!) to pick up the route. Its warm but still windy and very cobbly underneath but quickly turns to towpath close to the Wigan football ground. This soon turns into a single-track gravel path and then just disappears again. At Parbold there is a little Deli on the Canal, the only food stop other than a pub on the whole canal. Unfortunately, too early to stop so I press on. The tow path is hard going mostly until you reach the outskirts of Liverpool when the houses appear, and the towpath becomes tarmac. The last 12 miles is all tarmac but only the last 3miles are good.
This last stretch you can get a nice rhythm going, unlike the previous two days, with only a handful of bridges and draw bridges to slow you down. The houses soon disappear and the former canal industrial buildings are evident . . . and then its over. I have reached the end. The end that's now a housing estate and a Costco's rather than the former heart of business that once was. A very enjoyable 3 days that could have been done in two. The problem with the canal is you do not know what is in front of you and on paper 127 miles is easily doable in a day on road - off road it is totally different. If I return I would do it in reverse as I'm told its easier and would have a crack at the one day. My next challenge will be a 24hr canal challenge next summer, I am well on my way to completing the canal network.
- A bell is essential along the towpath, it doesn't always get heard but when it does most will move aside. Always be courteous and remember horses' walkers and runners have the right of way.
- Handlebar bag - the tow path is bumpy even when tarmacked, and muddy. I use the bag to store food and my rain proof. Where on the road you would use your back pockets on the jersey - off road you do not want you hand behind your back fumbling for food only to hit an unseen hole or hit a rock or tree root. Also, it acts as a great mudguard and stops the mud flicking up in to your face. Shop all handlebar bags here.
- Mudguards/Fenders - You need a good clearance from the tyre to the mudguard, so road ones are no use here (if you are off-roading). I use MTB ones that can be easily removed for when I'm back training on the road. With out them your bottles will get covered in the mud from the towpath which if consumed will make you very ill. View all mudguards here.
- A mapping GPS computer - when you get to a tunnel, most do not have the towpath in them, the canal does not have signs to get you back onto the canal. Also, if the towpath is having repairs you need to look at the mapping device to get you back on track, I use the Garman Explore which is very good for this. View all GPS computers here
- Gloves - Endura XTRACT for extra comfort for off road. I also have gel inserts on my handlebars and a thick handlebar tape for extra comfort on the hands.
- The Bike - having tried cycle cross, Hardtail 29er, Full suspension and Gravel, there is only one winner for the long-distance canal rides and that's a Gravel Bike.
- Tyres - cyclocross 32mm on mine but would suggest 40mm if you can or even better a 650b with 45-50mm for extra comfort. Tubeless is essential and if you can't then use slime inner tubes, I haven't had a puncture all year off road or on. View all tyres here.
- Food and drink - only one option for me the OTE range.
Stef rides a Specialized Diverge, our 2018 model is now on offer with 24% off!
Specialized Diverge Sport 2018 Carbon Cyclocross bike
- Frame - FACT 9r Carbon Frame w/Future shock Suspension
- Fork - FACT Carbon Fork
- Drivetrain - Shimano Tiagra 2x10 Speed
- Brakes - Tektro Spyre Mechanical Disc
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