In only six years the Pennine Bridleway Relay has become one of the country’s premier off-road relay races, on a par with events like the Calderdale Way and Ian Hodgson Mount-ain Relays.

There were just 39 teams in 2004, and although nobody was turned away this year for the first time, it was fully subscribed with 95.

It is a colossal undertaking for Graham Wright and his team from Rossendale Harriers as the route takes in the 47-mile Mary Towneley Loop of the bridleway traversing hillsides and crossing valleys between Rossendale, Burnley, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden and Rochdale.

As the race has grown, it has got more and more competitive in every class, with the veterans fighting out the closest finish in last Sunday’s event after three local clubs were in contention at the final changeover.

Clayton-le-Moors Harriers had led all the way after Mark Aspinall and Phil Hall were the fastest vet pairing and fourth overall on the first stage from Waterfoot to Cliviger.

By the final change-over at Whitworth they were seven minutes clear of Bowland Fell Runners with Rossendale another 20 seconds back. Dale’s Steve Duxbury and Jeremy Gold soon caught Bowland, but then dropped away after a minor navigational error.

Bowland’s Steve Bamber and Will Garner set about reducing Clayton’s advantage, but the 9.5 miles back to Fearn’s School wasn’t quite long enough and they ended 20 seconds shy.

As Clayton clocked 5:22:09 and Bowland 5:22:29 for ninth and 10th overall, Rossendale reached the finish three minutes later in 11th spot.

Blackburn Harriers were the first local club in fourth place, and it was a feather in their caps to be chased by the more traditionally strong fell running clubs Rossendale and Clayton in fifth and sixth.

Tom Cornthwaite and Josh Tighe were Blackburn’s aces with the fastest time of the day on the third leg from Callis Bridge to Summit while Dave Thornton and over-50 veteran John Chaplin ran a blinder on the short fourth stage to be third fastest.

Rossendale, second last year, pinned their faith in youth and it was well justified when Phil Bolton and Ashley Holt were third at the opening handover and Ashley Kay and Joe Johnston were fourth on stage four.

Consistent Clayton had no weak links, and apart from the two leading teams, they were alone in having all five pairings in the top 10.

Calderdale Way Relay winners Salford Harriers had entered for the first time but course record holders Horwich beat them by a minute after a race long duel.

For the champions Gary Priestley from Chorley combined with Darren Kay to break the record on the first stage, the only mark to fall this year.

The Calder Valley club retained the women’s trophy, although second placed Clayton, Todmorden in third and fourth finishers Rossendale between them fielded the fastest pairings on all five of the stages.

Chorley Harriers specialise in the mixed class and they successfully defended their title with six minutes in hand over Accrington Road Runners.

The team finished 16th outright after Phil Iddon and Sarah Biddulph had given them an early lead.

Natasha Fellowes and Dawn Atkins were within seconds of the fastest women as they combined on the fourth stage, while Accrington had Chris Barnes and Shaun Livesey to thank for their ninth place on the last lap.