Up The Buttress

Distance: 327 metres, Ascent: 64 metres, route map

You may be quick on your bike but are you tough enough to take it up the buttress?

If you’re familiar with the little world of cycling hill climbs then you’ll have heard of The Buttress’s Belgian cousin The Koppenberg. This short stretch of steep cobbled roadway has been the cause of much controversy over the years as it has caused embarrassment for any number of professional riders. Whenever it is included in a race it seems that some riders fail to make the ascent on their bikes and end up carrying them to the top (someone can tell me why they don’t just push their bikes). It isn’t just the steepness of The Koppenberg that is the problem – the cobbles themselves are rough and awkward to negotiate.

Like The Koppenberg, The Buttress is a cobbled ascent of around 70 metres but the good news is that The Buttress is about half the distance. The other side of this equation – and this is the bad news – is that means The Buttress is twice as steep.

The steepest section is not far from the start and you’ll recognise it because the cobbles (or sets as we’re supposed to call them) have been placed at an angle to give extra grip to the pack animals that once struggled their way up the hill to Heptonstall. Be warned that the reason the cobbles are canted over at an angle is that their surfaces can get very greasy. After a wet spell they can hold a thin film of moisture which just adds to the fun.

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I don’t know what the angle of the steepest section is, but 30% seems a reasonable estimate. On a bright note though, if you do stop it isn’t far back down to the start for another go. The steepest section ends where a drainage channel cuts across The Buttress. This presents another small obstacle to conquer but if you get past it then you should feel confident that you can manage the rest of the ride without stopping. Don’t imagine that it’s ever going to get easy though, this ride is tough from start to finish.

Did I mention the not stopping bit? Part of the challenge for each ride in the Calderdale 50 is to complete it without getting off your bike and pushing. If you manage to do it in one go on your first attempt then you can allow yourself to feel smug although I can’t help thinking that you might have missed out on some of the fun.

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If you’re wondering whether this really counts as a proper climb for road bikes then you have to consider that it is part of route 68 on the national cycle network and also plays host to an uphill-only bike race, called “Up The Buttress”. In 2011 the race started partway up the cobbles just beyond the steepest section but in 2012 (also) they started from the top of the packhorse bridge in an effort to give riders a bit of a run up for the steepest section. No such molly-coddling for you though, you’ll have to do it properly and that means a standing start where the tarmac ends and the cobbles begin.

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On race day there are as many mountain bikes as road bikes but both seem to do equally well. Your choice may be dictated by which of your stable of bicycles has the best gearing – you’ll needly something suitably low.

The technique, as explained to me by my friend Robin Holt who came second in the 2011 race, is to stay in your saddle and make sure your weight stays over the back wheel. But you also need to hunch forward otherwise your front wheel can leave the ground. Once in position pedal as fast as you can but, and this is the clever bit, when you feel the back wheel is just about to start slipping then you ease off ever so slightly. Clearly Robin isn’t just fitter than me he’s also a much better cyclist because I can’t for the life of me detect when my back wheel is about to slip. Obviously I can tell once it has slipped because I’ve stopped and possibly even started to go backwards a little but just before the event? Sorry, no.

If your not one of the super-humans then cycling up The Buttress is more of a campaign than a challenge. You’ll need to know which gear you want to be in and when. More than that you might want to think about which bike you do it on. I ground to a halt on my road bike on the steepest section and had to borrow a friend’s mountain bike for a successful attempt. Some riders reduce the pressure in their rear tyre in an effort to prevent it slipping on the cobbles and then there’s the issue of which line to take. All this for the shortest ride in the 50.

Thankfully, route-finding is not part of the challenge. The route starts where the cobbles of The Buttress start on Old Gate, and you just keep going up until you reach the road at the top. Enjoy.

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