The English Lake district has always been a magnet for adventurers and artists, from William Worsdworth whose poetry was largely inspired by Lakeland's wild terrain, to George Mallory, who in the course of scaling the area's 3000ft peaks found the confidence to tackle Everest in 1924. It took 12 years for his body to be found; whether he reached the summit is still a matter of debate.
More recently Lakeland inspired the writer and illustrator Alfred Wainwright, whose intricately hand written and illustrated guides to Lakeland Fells are a mainstay of any British outdoorsman's book collection.
For mountain bikers, the region poses a wealth of challenges, from wild, high mountain passes to marginally more tame lakeside singletrack, and in recent years, two well regarded trail centres. So, when Lyle Barton of Acre Supply, the new MTB wing of respected US pack and apparel brand Mission Workshop emailed me to tell me he was flying to England and wanted to ride, there was only one place on the list: the Lake District.
I thought he'd like it. In Acre's short history they've created a catalogue of epic rides across Switzerland, Germany and the Lakes seemed to continue the theme of big terrain, natural trails and adventure.
One thing you can always guarantee in a region that butts prominently into the Irish Sea is weather – it changes rapidly and unpredictably, and it's always there, waiting for you over the next hill. I picked Lyle up in London on Sunday evening - spring was in the air and the temperature was nudging 20deg. By Tuesday lunchtime, when we found ourselves hiking up Helvellyn, the third highest peak in the Lakes, winter was back with a vengence, the temperature hovering around freezing, the wind howling through the saddle in the hills blowing a stinging hail into our exposed faces as we climbed.
Even for a native it's hard to believe you're only two days and 250 miles north of sunny London; for Lyle, freshly arrived from California it must have come as quite a surprise.
We started our trip with a loop that incorporated the Nan Bield Pass, a legendary trail known best for its picturesque switchbacks. The route I'd plotted in advance and plugged into my Garmin promised 15.5 miles and 4000 feet of descending (and what goes down…). We started in Kentmere, crossed the hill to the Gatesgarth Pass and started climbing. When we reached a false flat, we peeled off, following a faint trail across the moors into nothing but bog and wet socks.
It was worth the hike. We reached a summit and an American Prairie stretched out in front of us, no sign on human existence on the horizon.
Further on we discovered a bothy - a traditional unmanned lodging, accessible only by foot or bike, and open to anyone who happens to find themselves in the hills. You can camp there, indoors, away from the weather, light a fire in the stove and cook whatever food you've brought with you - a true retreat.
When you create routes for yourself, combining Google Earth and maps, you can't guarantee that what you'll find on the ground will be worth riding, but that's all part of the adventure. And for every disappointment, it seems to you strike gold: a perfect ribbon of technical, flowing singletrack with views to die for. The descent down to Haweswater Reservoir through the disused mine buildings of Mardale Common was just such a thing - fast, unexpected and complex. The riding was fun, but even better was the satisfaction that the route was living up to promises I'd made to Lyle in the car - that this would be the best riding England has to offer. It really is.
We climbed the 1200ft to the pass of Nan Bield in cold, and getting colder, conditions. At the summit, we hid in a stone shelter and Lyle opened the emergency pork pie - imagine the worst bits of pig, scraped straight from the abattoir floor, encased in jelly, then pastry, and you'll have some idea of this English delicacy. He didn't look impressed, but calories, bro, calories.
The descent from the highest point of the day finished the ride in spectacular fashion. Pictures of Nan Bield make it look like a perfectly built MTB trail, but on the ground, it's rough as hell and the corners are awkward, with rocks in all the wrong places, and radii that are just too tight to ride smoothly. It's equal parts fun and frustration and that's the story with natural trails - you find yourself hucking off rocks one minute, feeling like a superhero, then seconds later you roll into a section where there's no obvious line and end up walking.
Acre Supply started business in 2013, launching with a range of packs and apparel. It seems like an interesting - strange, even - decision for Mission Workshop, a fashionable urban cycling brand to move into mountain biking. "For us it's actually a full circle", says Lyle. "Twenty years ago our founder Mark, was following the mountain bike racing scene around the US in a van. So this is something he wanted to do for a long time - we want to make gear that we use in our daily life, whether that's on the trail or in town."
Coming from an urban background, it's noticeable that Acre's got a distinctly different, more mature aesthetic to much of the MTB market. The colours are muted, the silhouette slimmer and the marketing material is more about the riding than the personalities.
"Yeah, you'll see our logos are very subtle, and we try and make products that you can use for multiple things" Lyle explains. "You can wear the jacket on the bike or around town, going to the airport and multiple things, even though it's a technical jacket. People buying into our brand know that it's going to last a long time, it's made of really great materials and it's something they can use for multiple things. And everything is made in North America."
I spent the time in the Lake District riding with Acre's larger 14l Hauser pack. I was impressed - it's comfortable, lighter than it looks and I was able to pack a camera in it no problem. I could even get a 13in MacBook Pro in there, making it pretty useable away from the trails too.
"We are a niche brand anyway, but I think we saw a gap: no one is making packs in North America, that are weatherproof and have a lifetime guarantee - that doesn't exist. So for us it was a natural choice", Barton explains.
Lifetime guarantees are kinda rare in mountain biking - like any industry, this is a business built on selling new stuff, all the time, so gear that could potentially last forever is uncommon. Using materials like merino, which can be worn day after day without beginning to stink is another example of the buy less, but buy well mentality. And when you're doing big trips or you're on the road full time as Lyle is, having less to carry is always good.
"We tested this stuff a lot last summer, and this is kinda gross, but Dan Barham did the whole Trans Provence route, six days of riding, without washing his merino shirt and he never really smelled. So that's definitely a product you can use day after day for multiple things. We try to use the best materials we can, that have a story behind them and are functional."
Acre's take on what mountain biking is, at least as judged by their ads and marketing materials, seems to coincide what I love about the sport – big mountains, wild terrain and using modern enduro type bikes for more than just going fast and having fun, but actually having real adventures.
"Mountain biking is so many different things", says Lyle. "I'm not a racer, but I like to ride gnarlier, big mountain stuff, or pack up and head out into the mountains for three or four days and camp out, and we want to create stuff you can use for all those things."
Coming from California, with its droughts and sunshine, it's lucky that Barton spends a lot of time on the road and gets to test Acre product in conditions like we experienced in the Lake District.
"It's fun to come over and ride in different conditions", he says. "And it's not just the weather, its the rocks and the gnarliness. You guys don't maintain your trails so they're super rough. It's good to test, when you fall down and be like, oh, my jacket didn't rip. The riding here in the Lake District was a little steeper than I expected it to be - it's not super high elevation, but you go straight up and straight down. It was rockier and more fun than I expected it to be. It was really eye opening."
Both Lyle and I rode long travel 29ers in the Lakes, him on a Santa Cruz Tallboy LTc and me on an Orange Five 29. The big wheels were awesome on the steep, unpredictable and rocky trails we rode – the 29in wheels just rolled over stuff before our brains had the chance to get us in trouble. Lyle's been riding the Tallboy for a year now and clearly feels at home on it: "I really need to say thank you to Santa Cruz and SRAM because they really hooked me up with the best bike possible. I can ride cross country stuff in California and come over here and ride big mountains, it's the perfect bike for sure."
For our second day of riding we were joined by Sammy Smithson of Stif
, the Yorkshire based bike shop.
We had a handful of options for routes, but all started in the small village of Glenridding, and included Helvellyn, which at 3100ft is the highest point you can legally ride to in England. We started the ride up in the rain, and by the time we reached the ridge that takes you to the summit, rain had turned to sleet and the wind was howling. What's more, the route to the summit was still blocked by snow. There aren't many places where you feel quite so exposed at less than 3000ft elevation as you do in the Lakes. We decided at that point that gaining any more elevation was a bad idea, so turned right and rode along the ridge to meet up with the Stick's Pass, an old trail that would take us back to the village.
We stopped at the top to put on dry gloves. It was freezing, big patches of snow still covered the trail and the wind was still roaring, but at least it was behind us now. The trail though - wow. It descends alongside a stream for the first part, rocks everywhere, then into an abandoned quarry, where the rocks proliferate and the gradient steepens and you find yourself holding your breath, you're concentrating so hard on not going over the bars.
In the village we stopped for coffee, freezing but stoked to have made it off the mountain without crashes or mechanicals. We had one more loop to do after lunch, following the lakeside singletrack around Ullswater. I promised Sammy and Lyle an easy XC loop, and for some reason they believed me. Twenty minutes later we had our bikes on our shoulders again, hiking up another climb.
The final descent of the trip, from Boredale Hause to Patterdale, was worth every second of hiking we'd done, a glorious mess of rocks, drops, switchbacks and line choices. It was awesome. We drove back to London that evening, pumped on mountains, maps and adventure. That's what mountain biking's all about; it's what Acre's all about too.
Find out more acre-supply.com
Ride our routes: Day one - Nan Bield Pass
, Day two - Helvellyn