Ride Report - Off piste in the Peaks

Rachel sokal

Rachel Sokal reports back from the inaugural The Service Course Off-piste in the Peaks event.

The Service Course is a small series of bike shops offering high-end custom bikes, coffee and organised rides. Their main base in Girona, Spain is as renowned for its Gravel Bonanzas as it is for the bikes it sells. The 100km events run several times a year from their different worldwide locations and are a chance for riders to get a mighty dose of premium gravel, coffee and socialising. Finally, this October it was the chance for The Service Course to replicate the bonanza at its Wilmslow location.  

Wilmslow lies in Greater Manchester in the UK. Manchester and its neighbouring Peak District aren’t really known for their gravel. Or their idyllic weather either. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Manchester is known for being one of the rainiest cities in the UK (a fact rather more supported by myth and literary reference than by detailed metrological records, it must be said). The western side of the Peak District is famous for its exposed moorland and rocky, scarred gritstone outcrops. This was not going to be an easy spin on quality gravel in the autumn sunshine. This was not going to be an easy spin for bike, body or mind. 

After a chilly night sleeping in our camper van, I headed to The Service Course for sign on and was extremely grateful for my first coffee of the day. It “had” to be done... it was included on my brevet card... as was the pastry.  The morning autumn air was chilly and damp, but despite the look of the skies, the forecast promised a dry day. Nevertheless, I spent a good while debating which combination of jackets, gilets and jerseys would keep me the right temperature on the bike and in the pub afterwards. With pockets suitably stuffed with layers, snacks and spares, I headed out with friends Tom and Julia who I’d bumped into outside. 

With GPS devices fitted on our bikes, we set out from the shop on our 104km route. There was a shorter 86km version if the cloudy skies got too angry, but with well over 1,000m of climbing even that wasn’t going to be an easy option either.  Maybe I should have had another coffee before we’d left.

The undulating roads through the Cheshire countryside gave us comfortable but purposeful start to the day. We caught and were caught by various groups of riders, big and small, all heading out with the same purpose, all heading out with the same mix of excitement and apprehension.  

After 25km we hit the biggest climb up through the edge of Macclesfield Forest. There were just enough gates and false flats (and teeth on my cassette) to save my dignity as we crawled our way up the gravel tracks to the top. Riders grouped at the top to regather, refuel and take in the view across the hills and valleys and the thick layer of deep, dark cloud. 

After a fast and loose descent, the two routes diverged, our longer one taking us straight up to the top of the Dark Peak moorland and the infamous Cat and Fiddle pub. Even with the deep cloud the views stretched far across the moorland back to the towers and chimneys of Greater Manchester and beyond. We turned off the road onto a thin, stony moorland path which gradually opened up into a rocky and fast descent.  For many riders, this trail pushed the definition of gravel a little too far and they made their way down cautiously. For mountain bikers like Julia, Tom and I, it was a chance to see what our dropped bar bikes could do as we sped our way down. It was probably luck that got me to the bottom in one piece and air still in my tyres. Tom and Julia had gone with the “prudent judgement” option when they chose bigger volume 650b tyres for the ride. 

We continued with the steep climbs and lively descents on the roads and gritstone through the town of Buxton before turning back north up the Goyt Valley. As we gradually ticked off the miles, we assured ourselves on more than one occasion we’d ‘done most the climbing’. The dramatic skies were a constant message of how much harder this could be if the rain fell. 

As we crested round the corner of another ‘nearly the last’ climb we were greeted by the gentle hum of a generator and voices at the feed station. In true The Service Course and gravel style, this wasn’t all energy gels and drinks though. There was cheese, nut butter and espresso.  I almost felt civilised. 

After firsts and seconds of supplies and socialising we headed off on the final 40km of our ride. Riding north-west towards Manchester, the landscape changed from valleys and scars to the grey and green rolling hills and the views opened up once again to the skyline of Manchester. The gravel and tarmac under our tyres made for some quick progress as we picked up the pace to the finish. 

The canal towpaths took us through old industrial areas and right into the centre of Manchester. As we popped out at the brewery for our final brevet card destinations of pie and pint, the sun finally peeked out from behind the clouds. After an hour or two of recounting the day’s tales, the chill of the early evening finally prompted us to leave. Slightly wobbly legged we made our ways home through the busy city with the day’s contrasting moorland views firmly in our minds. 

The gritstone and cloud of Manchester and the Peak District are far removed from Girona’s premium gravel and sunshine, but it was a great bonanza to be part of. 

I recommend you keep an eye out for next year’s TSC events.

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