I arrived in Manchester around 2pm, having set-off from Sheffield at 9am and cycled all the way. This may sound like a masochistic mid-February activity. But I can only report good vibes: a subtle rush of endorphins released from pushing the body and the satisfaction of knowing I got here with my own energies alone, rather than depending on ancient sunlight stored in fossil fuels and imported from afar.

The route I took was fast, fun and felt safe yet exciting. Having done the trip a few times before, and feeling sure that this was the best route I’ve taken so far, I’m going to share it with the world. The actual route I took was recorded by the GPS on my smartphone (which I uploaded to GPSies), enabling it to be stored for posterity and downloaded by others for future reference. I wouldn’t say this is the best possible route from Sheffield to Manchester, but I would certainly recommend it to most cyclists, for reasons outlined below.

Deciding the route in advance

To be honest, I didn’t put a lot of thought into planning the route in advance. Simply typing “Sheffield” and “Manchester” into the from and to fields in the open source bicycle route planner CycleStreets.net yields 3 options, the fastest of which looked reasonable to me. Each of these can be seen on the route’s own web page, automatically generated and stored for posterity.

Route options from CycleStreets.net

As you’ll see from the route’s page, CycleStreets.net very handily provides turn-by-turn breakdown of the trip, including links to photos uploaded to the internet by enthusiasts and sub-maps of key parts of the route, such as the one displayed below.

key route part

I did also try planning the route using Google’s bicycle route planning option and was heartened to see that, after forcing the route onto the exciting Snake Pass the result was similar to the CycleStreets option:

google fast route

Basically, I was happy with the distance (~40 miles), time estimated by CycleStreets (4 1/2 hours) and Google (4 1/4 hours) and was confident that I could get onto the Snake Pass without need for navigation. Owning a smartphone, I decided to play it by ear and wait for instructions from CycleStreets.net or Google on how to navigate myself to Manchester city centre once in Glossop. As explained below, I was pleasantly surprised.

The ride itself

The ride itself was fun, fast and felt safe. My friend Woody accompanied me to Ladybower resevoir, after which point I was on my own. Riding up to the summit of the Pennine Pass (1600 ft, a climb of 1300 ft from the starting height of 300 ft in Sheffield) was a mission, but not arduous on my road bike, lightly loaded with a single pannier and a rucksack.

Before I knew it I was on the fast descent into Glossop. This made the trip worth it on its own, as the Snake Pass is ultra smooth and has pleasant curves around beautiful scenery. Having never been into Glossop centre, I stopped for a cup of tea and relax there.

It was raining when I left, recharged after a brew. The route planning was also more complicated from this point onwards, unless you are really in a rush in which case you would just continue on the A57. At this point I got my smartphone out.

Initially CycleStreets “live ride” journey planner was my first choice, but it crashed a couple of times at which point I switched to Google Maps’ navigation app. I wore earphones, allowing the soothing lady’s voice to tell me “turn left onto Mottram Road in 1000 ft” and other clear instructions. Obediently I followed.

The great thing about following route planners like this is that you can appear on completely unexpected paths. This happened spectacularly for me, as I was guided onto a canal path which is hidden from the road. This took me 5 miles all the way to my destination.

To re-trace this track - which I wholy recommend - you can download the GPS trace from here, on Open Street Map. Of course there are other route options, but I’d say that this one combines the a great combination of speed, fun and canal towpaths!

Alternative routes and final reflections

I am by no means the first to attempt the journey, and many alternative routes are available online. Cycle Sheffield, for example, offers a detailed description of a largely rural route (see map below).

This route avoids the busier Snake and Woodhead passes. The former because it is described as “narrow and has fast traffic”, the latter being “a highly undesirable place to be for a cyclist”. Having ridden both routes, I would say that both descriptions are a little exagerated: yes cars tend to whizz over the snake pass and yes there is a high proportion of trucks in the traffic in the flow over Woodhead. But neither felt inherently dangerous at any time: in some ways the long expanses of road space felt safer per kilometre than urban traffic, which is far less predictable (due to cars pulling out, traffic lights, left and right turns and other urban phonomena). Wynnat’s pass is probably the least busy option, but still requires busy roads to get there quickly and is slightly longer than the swooping Snake Pass.

An even more rural route is the trans pennine trail, a completely off-road trail of which Sheffield-Manchester is only a part: it runs from coast to coast. Again, this route is ideal for leisure purposes, but will be much slower than the road option I took.

All in all it was a great ride, even given the rain. I would fully recommend inter-city cycling to anyone - just take a day out and go for it - and with smartphones and the recent emergence fantastic bicycle-specific online route planners, planning and executing the journey is easier than ever before.