Britain’s Best Bike Rides: Haworth Cobbles

Guy Kesteven seeks out the UK's pavé and rattles his teeth on this classic 45 mile ride around Yorkshire. Pictures: Russell Burton

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Haworth is unlikely to have heard anything like this before. Better known as the home of the Brontë sisters, this West Yorkshire village’s steep cobbled main street is a proper tourist honeypot that features in photo albums all around the world. Plenty of people regularly struggle and wheeze up it, and today it’s me and my riding partner Alex, using language that probably hadn’t been invented when Emily, Charlotte and Anne were writing away with their quills.

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Our suffering is down to another riding buddy. Mark Richmond has been on about this ride for ages. The man we call ‘Cow and Calves’, on account of the (almost) eponymous rock formation above his Ilkley home and his unlikely lower leg size, is a proper pavé fanatic. An oracle of old cycling stories, he’d rule the Mastermind chair when it comes to questions about cobbles, Cancellara and the legendarily hard Spring Classics of the Low Countries. Having ridden sportives on these mud-spattered, wrist-bruising, bone-jarring ‘kinder koppen’ (literally ‘babies’ heads’), he was determined to, ahem, cobble together a suitably brutal Flanders-style training ride around the mills and hills of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire. A taste of the Classics without the cross-channel ferry food.

Lazy wind

The first time I rode the Haworth climb with Mark he put the hammer down early, with gleeful threats about how bad it was going to feel when we wobbled back up it at the end of the day. Unfortunately for Flemish flavour but fortunately for our legs, Mark can’t make it today, so Alex and I start a little easier. That means it’s the long pull up through Oxenhope and up over the moors – ‘Wuthering Heights’ – towards Hebden Bridge that really gets the blood flowing. A good job too as it’s what the locals call a lazy wind today – one that goes through you, not round you.

There’s a spit of sleet in the stiff breeze as we crest the rust-coloured moorland tops, and we’re obviously not the only ones trying to warm up as we plug past a steamed up car that’s rocking more than the wind would account for… It’s smirking squints dead ahead though as we pile into enough curving corners for Alex to curse his fancy deep-section rims on the drop down the valley side towards Pecket Well.

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It’s a gorgeous descent though, big sweeping corners down the winding, wooded valley road. As we hit the edge of Hebden Bridge a single lane squeezes through tight terraces, with traffic lights hiding in brake-block-cooking ambush just beyond the first 30mph speed limit signs.

If you’re expecting ‘grim up North’ stereotyping you’ll be in for a shock in Hebden Bridge, where vegan cafes and poetry readings have outnumbered flat caps and ferrets for a while. Popping into Blazing Saddles bike shop to catch up with friends, our plan for the next leg of the route sees them threatening to shut the shop for five minutes so they can witness the carnage. Our second section of pavé is brutal enough to drain the colour out of the most vivid tie-dye smock as we roll over the cobbled, humpbacked bridge that supplies the second bit of Hebden’s name.

Staring us straight in the face is The Buttress: a cobbled packhorse climb with a tendon-snappingly steep bottom section. Despite being optimistically included as part of the NCN 68 Pennine Cycleway, this murderous Yorkshire version of the Flèche Wallonne’s infamous Mur de Hoy is barely climbable even on a good day and a perpetual carpet of moss and leaves make it lethal in the damp.

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Russ the photographer is delighted at the thought of sending us up it as many times as possible to get the ultimate gurning shot. By the sixth time I can’t even see straight. Even if you grunt your way up the steepest section it carries on for several hundred metres more punishment to a final muscle-flaying ramp at the top.

At the top Alex rolls a grenade under my feet with the casually observed comment that although I’ve done all of it in bits several times, I can’t really say I’ve cleaned the whole thing unless I go right back down and bust it all out in one.

Truth is, though, it’s the bouncing, slithering, hand-numbing descent that’s the most punishing part, and I have to wait a while at the bottom for feeling to return to my fingers before one last charge up. Doing the whole thing in one brings home just how vile the velvet moss and jolting, rhythm-breaking blocks of the middle section are, each pedal stroke and bar twitch potentially turning personal glory into gutted disappointment. The group of old folk who peer over the parapet wall delivering disbelieving, mostly undecipherable encouragement as I gurn and burn my way up adds a welcome Flemish flavour to the lactic-lashed proceedings, and somehow I grovel out onto the road at the top.

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While it’s certainly not flat, the road up to Heptonstall feels like silk after the battering cobbles of The Buttress, but more rumbling fun strikes as soon as we hit the village. Its immaculate cobbled main street is another picture postcard surprise for those with a ‘dark satanic mill’ view of West Yorkshire. The huge ruined church just off to the left shows just how rich and prosperous an area this was when the local holy lambs of god and the textile industry ruled the economy.

top totty

The amount we’ve climbed in the last few miles is very obvious as we top out onto the Widdop Road. Deep valleys with scattered farmhouses give a remarkably ‘out there’ feel compared to the bustling towns of Calderdale just behind us. The farmhouses thin out too as we contour past Hardcastle Crags beauty spot and streams splashing through boulder-strewn cuts. Previous exertions surge painfully back into our legs as the road drops across a stone dam and then swings savagely up through two frost-scarred hairpins towards the tiny hamlet of Widdop. This was where Mark had intended to put the boot in properly on our recce ride, and lactic acid is lapping at the muscles in my legs.

As we pass the dam wall repairs of Widdop Reservoir it’s totally deserted and we continue our climb to the border between West Yorkshire and East Lancashire. Then all of a sudden we’re confronted by a huge panorama.

The sight of Burnley, Nelson and Colne in the fold of the valley might not sound particularly tempting, but the fells of Pendle, the Forest of Bowland and the Northern Dales that form the skyline show just how much wide open space there still is here. But sightseeing takes second place to line choice as we tackle the swerving valley edge descent, where only big stone blocks on the left-hand edge would stop you floating, light as a Schleck, to the valley floor below.

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If we’d had Mark’s local knowledge with us, there seem to be hundreds of route options to weave a cobbled cat’s cradle from, but the boarded-up windows and hollowed cheeks hidden deep inside hoodies suggest Colne isn’t the best area to whip out your iPhone and start checking GPS coordinates, so we dodge through on a straighter route.

Out the far side we’re quickly back into Postman Pat territory, and while the roads aren’t cobble-infested there’s no shortage of altitude gain or rough tarmac to keep us on point. It’s a chance to chew the fat though, as we head up and over to the winding floodplain of the River Aire.

Clearing the edge of Silsden, the climb up to Ilkley Moor is a real leg-killer, and while we’re only climbing half the potential height of the hill it’s enough to kill our conversation.

Mark’s deliberately malicious route leaves a vicious double dose of venom to the last, so we ready ourselves with a drink and a gel on the roll down past the golf club. Peeling off the busy A650, you’ll probably think the side road to Thwaites Brow, with its chainlink compound charm, is a wrong turn and, as far as taking the easy option, it is. But you’re not going to be thinking about the surrounding ambience much as the cobbled street swings up through two tightening S-bends, forcing you to search for the smoothest lines between roughly filled-in scars and wheel-eating holes. There’s no respite either, with the climb curving up and on as your pedalling rhythm drops to a death march. Dark jokes about the graveyard being handily placed for any heart attack victims mask our pain as we use our ebbing energy to heft the bikes over the top, past the church and up into open country again. Broad views fuel deep, bloody tasting breaths as the sun drops over the Pennines and we head back into Keighley, manning up for the final furlong.

In truly dramatic fashion, Mark’s saved the best ’til last in the shape of the curving climb up Hainworth Lane. The first bit under the dusky trees looks horrific enough, but then the low sun picks out the rich green moss on the walls and the increasing gradient of the curving cobbles. Rounding the corner to another steepening shoulder, effort-related incontinence and emotional collapse compete in a battle of ‘wee or weep’.

“You poor things,” says a lass at the roadside, unable to believe we’d put ourselves through such agony voluntarily.

As we pedal off the last ranks of cobbles the silence is deafening; if Mark wanted to give us an insight into why the Flemish Classics are seen as the true ‘hard men’ races, he couldn’t have created a better route. While steep hills and big altimeter totals can blend prime beef legs into dog food by the end of a long day, nothing sinks its claws into bones and soft tissue like steep slabs of cobbles.

Ride the route

Distance 73.3km (45.5 miles) Climbing 1980m (6496ft)

Grade Hard Duration 3.5-5.5 hours Maps OS Landranger 103 Leeds and Bradford, and 104 Blackburn and Burnley

Download the route here

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