on 22 July 2013
Great British Bike Rides is a book with an interesting premise. Dave Barter is a cycling enthusiast of a certain age, but was not ever thus. Have already been an aspiring cyclist and caver in his youth, his passion for outdoor pursuits took flight when he began climbing on the gritstone crags of the Peak District. His eyes were opened to the full potential of climbing in the UK, he explains in his preface, by Ken Wilson's 1978 book Classic Rock, still in print and considered by many a "must-do" list of British climbing routes for the rookie climber (it is in fact a companion to Wilson's earlier Hard Rock and later Extreme Rock: the three volumes were published under the collective title Great British Rock Climbs). The routes listed in Classic Rock are not technically difficult, but without exception each offers a characteristically British climbing experience, with a physical challenge (albeit a modest one, by climbing standards at least), a wild location, glorious scenery and the sensation of being at the heart of the sport's heritage.
Fast forward: after a ten-year hiatus due to "career and other distractions", Barter returns to the outdoors, this time astride a bike. But he can't shake the memory of Ken Wilson's book, and finds himself wondering: where is the Classic Rock for the cyclist? And so, eventually, the concept of Great British Bike Rides was born.
Great British Bike Rides presents 40 tarmac testers for the road cyclist. The rides are grouped into four geographical regions (northern and southern England, Scotland, Wales), and each is accompanied by a short and invariably very readable essay on the pedigree of the route, a detailed route description with turn-by-turn route guide, a map and more statistics than you can shake a track pump at: the overall elevation profile, a "hill analysis" that warns of the pain to come, detailed breakdowns of the route's key climbs, a further analysis that shows what class of roads you will find yourself riding on and a clever little spider diagram scoring the route on four factors of motivation - how scenic, wild and challenging each ride is, as well as a rating on the somewhat subjective notion of "classicness". Going back to the climbing analogy for a second, one wonders if setting off forearmed with all this intelligence makes the ride less a flash, more a redpoint. Well, they're there if you want them, but equally you could set off with the map and directions alone and see what the road throws up at you. Your call. (Incidentally, all the routes can be downloaded in gpx format from the book's companion website.)
Some of the routes are based on recognised classics of the sportive and racing scenes, others, as the author puts it, "just sprang from the map". Many of the loops are brutal: take, for example, the "Lake District Passes" ride, a 156km mountain monster that is essentially the Fred Whitton Challenge (arguably Britain's toughest sportive) - but harder.
Barter's prose is fluid and engaging, and in places almost playful: at times he's practically daring you to saddle up and get out on those climbs. The text is accompanied by excellent photography (most of it by the Barter family) that always places the scenery, and not the cyclist, firmly at centre stage. My personal favourite is the double page spread of Scotland's little Passo dello Stelvio, Bealach Na Ba, but there are many others that inspire and delight in equal measure.
Does Great British Bike Rides capture the essence of the much-revered book that inspired it? Pretty much. Cyclists might point to another tarmac tick-list, Simon Warren's popular 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, a compilation of the steepest and nastiest lung-busters Britain has to offer. But where Warren's book is the cycling equivalent of a compendium of hard single-pitch climbs (short, sharp, intense), Barter's offers a wider take on the British cycling experience as might a four-pitch v. diff. on Pavey Ark. But make no mistake, many of the 40 are very tough rides, and you will encounter plenty "Warrens" along the way; in this respect Great British Bike Rides might be closer to Wilson's Hard Rock. If there's a gripe to be had it's that, for the price, hardback and even a larger format would be nice. This is, after all, a book whose pages will be turned again and again, and in any case was never going to fit in the back pocket of your cycling jersey .
Great British Bike Rides covers over 5,000km of riding and over 86,000m of ascent (personally I'm a pre-metric man, but somehow the figures look even more terrifying in "old money".) All credit is due to Dave Barter for the substantial undertaking that researching and writing, not to mention riding, this book must have been. He acknowledges that any route can be amended according to the rider's wishes, and provides the reader with advice on how they might create their own Great British bike ride. But at a time where too many sportives are riding cycling's wave of popularity by charging silly money to ride on roads that belong to you in the first place (with maybe a bit of flapjack and a rather disappointing goodie bag thrown in), it's refreshing to find in one place 40 ready-made classics that you can go out and enjoy for the price of getting there. Great British Bike Rides is a cut above the average cycling guide book. Highly recommended.