In County Durham cycling benefits from a variety of terrain and consequently the Durham cycling experience is different depending on the area in which you live. In general it is much hillier in the west, descending slowly as you go further eastwards. The valleys of the major rivers: Tees; Wear; Derwent; Lune and Balder poke like fingers westwards into the North Pennines creating a series of formidable ridges that host the two highest surfaced roads in England. Crossing these ridges can be a challenge even for the experienced cyclist (the image shows cyclists passing the remains of the winding house at the top of the long off-road climb of Bolt’s Law on the C2C in Weardale).
Meanwhile in the east towards the coast, a steep limestone escarpment runs south from Sunderland, loops around Durham and stops at Bishop Auckland ensuring that many routes heading east will include a stiff – though usually brief – climb to access the plateau and. Once on the plateau however the cycling is much easier and from Hartlepool westwards to Barnard Castle it is near perfect – flat or gently undulating with hillier challenges never far away.
For those of us who live in the north and west of the county, all is not lost however: because of its huge mining legacy and the profusion of railways that developed, County Durham now benefits from over 150 km of railway paths – surely one of the most extensive networks in the country. Living close to Durham city as I do, I’m at the hub of three of those major railway paths, one of which – the Lanchester Valley path – links with the well known C2C cycle path at Consett. These paths, combined with much of the 543 km of bridleways and 45 km of by-ways in the county will allow you to safely build fitness before negotiating bigger challenges; or just be there to provide an easier alternative for when you don’t want to work too hard.
Deserving of a mention in themselves are the excellent facilities at Hamsterley Forest: this huge area of coniferous forest offers graded mountain biking trails, specialist downhill courses or just miles of quiet trails much of which is relatively flat and well surfaced making them ideal for families. For those who are a bit fitter or more adventurous the trails offer an interesting alternative to accessing the road at the top of Bollihope than the more usual routes from either side.
Cycling should be FUN and the best way to ensure that it stays that way is to make sure that your bike is reliable and that you’re personally equipped for any of the usual problems that befall every cyclist from time to time. The key to this is regular MAINTENANCE: always make sure that your bike is in good working order and that
- Brakes and gears are working smoothly and efficiently
- Chain, gears and brake mechanisms are correctly lubricated
- Tyres are in good condition with plenty of tread and inflated to the correct pressure (this will make pedaling more efficient, improve traction and reduce the likelihood of punctures)
- Position (of saddle and handlebars) is properly adjusted for comfort and efficiency
- Shoe cleats (if used) are tight and properly adjusted
However things do and will go wrong but if the bike is well maintained it’s probably going to be limited to the all-too-common puncture. Depending on how you’re equipped this could be the end of your ride, a minor irritation or the chance to take a few minutes rest while you go through a well-rehearsed routine – so make sure that you carry the following tools and spares:
- Pump (many types, some frame mounted and others small enough to put in your pocket but make sure you know how to use it)
- Tyre levers (larger wired-on tyres often require only a single lever but higher pressure tyres may require three if your technique’s not so hot)
- Inner tube (correctly sized)
- Patches (various types including repair kits but I like the Park pre-glued patches)
- A good quality multi-tool (with allen keys for all the bolt heads on your bike plus a flat and cross-head screwdriver as a minimum)
Nice to have:
- Spoke key
- Emergency chain link
If you’re not mechanically-minded, have your bike professionally serviced and familiarise yourself with how it feels when it’s working properly. Clean it regularly and look for things working loose, wearing or behaving differently that way you’ll spot problems long before they show themselves on the road. Learn to fix the little things yourself and you’ll gradually increase in confidence and be able to compare and contrast your bike’s relative performance making you more able to anticipate problems and less inclined to be unduly worried.
Cycling isn’t and shouldn’t be complicated: there are all sorts of gizmos (computers, GPS etc) that can be useful depending on your own motivations and interests but none of these, in my humble opinion, are essential. However, as many of the routes that we recommend include railway paths that are shared with other users (walkers etc) you might find that a simple bell turns out to be a worthwhile investment.
Cycling-specific clothing is almost always money well-spent and will contribute to your comfort and enjoyment immeasurably. ‘Clip-in’ cycling shoes are particularly worthwhile, they are well designed and not something to be feared – there is no chance of your foot being retained in the pedal if you were to fall off. Cycling shorts come in many styles and are tailored for gender and activity so that they remain comfortable all day and don’t chafe in sensitive areas. Jerseys with rear pockets allow you to stash more gear than you might realise and make it readily accessible. Like shorts they are tailored for gender. Helmets are a matter of personal choice – wear one if it makes you feel safer. A lightweight shower-proof jacket that can be rolled up and stashed in a rear pocket is another worthwhile investment. Bright colours and reflective surfaces and piping are definitely recommended to help announce your presence on the road.
Cycling is and always has been a simple, popular, healthy and almost universally accessible activity. Although there have been many amazing technical developments throughout its history it remains essentially the same activity that it always was: a frame, something to sit on, something to steer with, two wheels, a mechanism to make them turn and one to stop them. Despite this (and I suppose you can’t really blame them) the cycling trade is well populated with retailers versed in the art of ‘smoke and mirrors’, who can turn the simple purchase of a bell into one requiring a custom fitting session and a credit reference check!
So look for one who’s prepared to spend time talking to you and who will tailor options to suit your requirements and budget and who provides a competitive and accredited after-sales service. Your relationship with your bike shop could potentially be a long one. However, it often fails to go that smoothly so if you’ve had no luck or you just want some impartial advice, contact us here at The Durham Cow – as long time cycling enthusiasts and qualified bikeability instructors we’ll be happy to help get you up and cycling and ready to explore this fantastic county of ours.