Warning, this post is written by a proud Dad – if you’re prone to nausea at parents singing the praises of their kids and/or dwelling in the thrill of parenthood, you might just want to skip it ….
I love being a parent. It happened by accident, to be honest. It’s ten years ago now, when we found out Bobby was on his way (Sue had been feeling a bit strange on and off through our fortnight’s cycle-tour of the Pyrenees, and especially on the long ascent of Tourmalet …), and back then I felt completely unable to predict how I would find it. It’s still an open-ended adventure, of course; but wow, on a day-to-day level it’s great, and then – just occasionally – it’s absolutely sublime. And this weekend was absolutely sublime.
The opening stage of the Tour of Britain was due to pass through the Trough of Bowland and over Jubilee Tower on Saturday. That’s our cycling backyard, but it’s a backyard that our kids – because we don’t own a car and very rarely travel in one - have barely seen. I ride beyond the city limits regularly, and Sue fairly often, so Bobby and Flo hear about places like the Trough of Bowland and Jubilee Tower, but those names don’t mean that much to them – or so I thought. Actually, I know now that those names are lodged into my son Bobby’s nine-year old imagination, and that the thrill he felt at actually being able to ride and experience them for himself was just immense …
After our recent holiday in France, Bobby had 300 touring miles in his legs. Out there, he’d also proven himself a very adept rider; he handled his bike well, was able to concentrate for relatively long periods in the saddle, and road calmly and competently when occasionally we encountered busy roads, full of fast-moving motorised traffic. This gave us confidence that he was ready to ride more seriously on our local roads. Perhaps our biggest reservation was the severity of the climbs around Lancaster – it’d be impossible to go anywhere Bobby hadn’t already been without tackling some pretty fierce gradients. Although he’d coped with some hills around the Dordogne, they were nowhere near as relentless and steep as those found in our local cycling country.
There’s a buzz about watching professional bike riders on your own roads, and we’re lucky in that in recent years the Tour of Britain has passed regularly along ours. The last couple of years it’s come through on a school day, and Sue and I have ridden out without the kids to catch it. But this year it was coming on a Saturday, which meant that Bobby could come along too. We considered how best to turn the experience into a little adventure, and I booked Bobby and myself into Slaidburn youth hostel on Friday night. Straight after school we’d ride the 24 miles out there, through the Trough, have dinner at the super village pub, The Hark to Bounty, stay overnight, then ride back to the Trough to watch the pro peloton ride through on Saturday, before continuing back home over Jubilee Tower. I was a bit apprehensive about how Bobby would cope with the hills, and the absence of child-friendly distractions along the way, but I also figured that even if we had to walk all of the tougher sections, we could still make it before nightfall.
You just don’t know until you give things a go, do you? But I know now that I needn’t have worried, and that Bobby is a stronger and more feisty little fella than either Sue or I had ever imagined.
We got lucky with the weather; it stopped raining as we left home and started again as we tucked our bikes into the youth hostel’s cycle shed at Slaidburn three hours later. But Bobby moved through the hill country of north Lancashire with such ease and grace that I wonder if those first two weeks of his pre-natal life spent cycling the high Pyrenean cols haven’t somehow found their way into his legs and lungs, and given him a cycling soul (though I take nothing-for-granted here, and for now his love of football seems stronger than his love for cycling). The first four miles we followed the route of my commute, to Lancaster University. Then we traced the back road through Ellel to Galgate; only there do you really start to feel like you’re on the lanes; my lanes; our lanes …
The riding gets more hilly as you move towards the dark bulk of the Forest of Bowland, but Bob rose out of his saddle with the land – he can stand on the pedals for minutes at a time; he never seems to tire of doing so. He wasn’t at all fazed by the wall of tarmac which greets you on what – following our friend Tom Cahill - we call ‘The Duke’s Road’ to Marshaw; it’s short, but the gradient must exceed 1 in 4. And he danced his way up the easy side of the Trough, where I showed him the memorial plaque to Bill Bradley, winner of the Tour of Britain in 1959 and 1960. Here he is at the top …
But if Bobby excelled at the cycling, his interests and priorities seemed elsewhere. The highlight of his trip was rescuing a frog off the road which runs over the River Wyre at Street. When we got to Slaidburn he wanted to call Mum and list the creatures we’d spotted along the way – not just the frog, but a sparrowhawk, a hare, countless rabbits and a black cat. All along the way he was keeping a list of the things he’d seen. Initially I thought this odd, but when I quizzed him he told me he was relaxed about the cycling, and confident about tackling the climbs, because Sue and I believed that he could do it, so he believed he could do it too. The big deal for Bobby was not the cycling, but the world which cycling was opening up to him. At times I watched him riding in front of me, getting blown by the wind as he made his way across the moors, and it almost blew my head away – the vicarious sense of what he must be experiencing; how he was encountering with all his senses this magnificent world by bike which I tend so often to take for granted. The adventure for Bob was less in the turning of the pedals, than in the world which his pedalling was bringing about.
The biggest test of the trip would undoubtedly be the following day, tackling the Trough from the south-east, the hard side. We rode out of Slaidburn on the back road to Newton, a road I’d never taken before and which will forever now be for me ‘Bobby’s road’, and then onto Dunsop Bridge, where we stopped for coffee, hot chocolate and to feed the ducks. Sue and I have ridden past the Dunsop Bridge ducks so many times and said to one another how much Bobby and Flo would enjoy them – often they waddle their ways across the road, or simply sit in it, holding up the cars – so that drivers must emerge and ‘shooo’ them out of their way. And here, finally, was Bobby’s introduction to the Dunsop ducks; we bought a bag of duck food from Puddleducks and out on the village green, and much to his delight, he was quickly surrounded; the pure and simple joys of childhood ….
At Dunsop Bridge we began to feel ourselves to be participating in ‘an event’. People were converging, many by bike, and moving towards the Trough. We moved with them. As we approached the beginnings of the climb Sue appeared from the other direction; she’d ridden out from Lancaster to meet us. Together then, we headed onto the hill. We were careful to keep Bobby’s expectations in check – this is one tough climb; it reduces many people to pushing their machines. People already lined the road, and as they saw Bobby approach many of them began to cheer him on. I saw his resolve set in. We’d intended to stop half-way up, to find a spot from which to watch the pros, but I could see that Bob wanted to do the climb. How I loved that – to see in my own son that pure appetite to ride a hill, to rise to its challenge so that the world falls away and it becomes just you and the road, with as the only end the point at which the up becomes down. As the road ramped up he rose to it. I burbled the inanities I burble to myself when I’m in that fight – “keep it going”, “focus on your front wheel, don’t look up just yet”, “stay calm, keep your breathing under control”; but I don’t think he needed them – he was in his own zone. And he just kept on and on, and I was as astonished as many of those standing at the side of the road seemed to be, that this slight nine year old lad, on such a little bike, was successfully climbing the hard side of the Trough …
We returned to the steepest section of the climb to watch the riders come through. Friends were among the many people continuing to arrive – first Jules and his daughters Anya and Mia, and then Hayden, Jim and Reuben - and together we shared the very specific and very intense enjoyment which comes from anticipating the peloton about to pass you by. Then, suddenly they were upon us – first a breakaway of three riders, Richie Porte and Wout Poels, with Jack Bauer struggling on the gradient to stay in touch with them. We cheered them on. A few minutes passed and someone shouted that the peloton was at the foot of the climb. I looked down to the valley’s bottom, and there – what a feeling!
Not a view but a feeling … I could call it a religious experience … it filled me with awe. The peloton filled the valley – our valley, one we know well, was suddenly full of men who ride bikes for a living. From where we stood, high above them, they looked almost static, though we knew they were moving faster across that ground than we ever will. To witness such a thing provokes a very special sensation in me … I suppose other people feel that way when they see a cathedral, or a work of art, but I never have been so moved by those things. But a bunch of cyclists – it’s less than a moment, but it etches deep into my being. Sacred …
Then they were upon us, point blank, moving so fast it took our collective breath away.
And in an instant they were gone. The event had moved up the road, leaving us behind, with our little moments, tiny fragments of sensations and memories. The bike race had punctured our everyday cycling lives, which are different now, as are the roads on which we will continue to ride.
We set off home via Jubilee Tower, another place about which Bobby had heard us talk but to which he had never before been. He wanted to cycle up Jubilee Tower. We approached from the moor side, the easy way. One day soon, now we know what he can do, we’ll tackle it the hard way, from Lancaster. He was chuffed to bits to reach the top of the climb, and then to climb up the Tower itself. Through his cycling he had won views, of the bay and of the hills, which he hadn’t known existed; he could see his home from another perspective.
Whatever the conclusion, another chapter in Bobby’s cycling journey has begun. I’m not so sure about Bobby, but Sue and I are thrilled.