Posts Tagged ‘Lake District’

Kirkstone Pass

July 23, 2013

Kirkstone Foot

Do you ever get the urge to spend a whole day by bike? For me it starts as a vague sensation but builds gradually into an itch that’s difficult to ignore. The older I get, the longer I’ve ridden, the more seriously I take it. It feels instinctive but I’m sure it’s not, it’s a habit I’ve developed – this occasional need for being all day on a bike. It’s not about training, almost the opposite – more like therapy; a form of meditation I suppose. The urge usually finds form in a specific ride idea through reading and chatting with others, and through a cycling imagination which – once the promise of a long ride takes hold – excels at the blend of map-based research and daydreaming required to make it happen.

So that’s how come I headed out early the other morning, for a day long ride.

Setting out

I took my favourite route to Sedbergh, my tyres sticking to the sap through the littlest of the overhung lanes, bursting with foliage and grass running up them. But one of the best things about longer rides is how they move you beyond your ordinary territory: villages, lanes, buildings, views become steadily less familiar until, finally – the confidence of a map in your pocket – you reach fresh ground.

This transition towards unfamiliarity begins thirty miles in. It’s years since I last followed the long, lonely, lovely lane– an old Roman Road – north from Sedbergh along the Lune; taking the Howgills’ western side, it stays high but cuts sharp down and up across each beck as it falls from the fells.

But finally all routes big and small are funnelled through the Lune’s gorge near Tebay and run parallel north until at Low Borrowbridge mine is forced underneath the M6 and West Coast mainline to their other sides. It’s strange, being so close yet feeling so removed from people inside the trains, trucks and cars; we’re differentially speeding in the same direction, parallel, but I feel out of time. And invisible – I’m so hidden on these tiny lanes they must be oblivious to me; cycling silently present but outside the mainstream.

The Lune’s highest reaches lie east of Tebay but I keep north. Back home I’d seen on the map a lane running between the north- and south-bound carriageways of the M6 for a couple of miles, along the 250 metre contour, and of course I want to ride it – a central reservation slow lane crammed full of moorland birds, sheep and a solitary cyclist. I’m sure it often feels wild and windswept, but today it’s wonderful.

Central reservation

The other side of the watershed, the lanes from Shap to Pooley Bridge are bliss; smooth, fast and largely traffic-free. Pooley Bridge is the northernmost point of Ullswater, and also of my ride, and back in the planning, it’s this next stretch which had particularly fired my imagination – to pedal Ullswater’s length before climbing out its valley over Kirkstone Pass.

Ullswater’s shoreside road is busy with cars, throwing into stark relief the car-free lanes I’ve enjoyed so far. But by now I’m so far into my own zone they don’t much bother me, even the few which get too close; on longer meditative rides like this, by distracting my focus cars actually help restore it, becoming a resource to deepen rather than destroy my cycling experience. Besides, the views down and across Ullswater to Cumbria’s finest fells are stunning.

Ullswater

I ride through the village of Glenridding to the lake’s southern end, then past Patterdale, Hartshop and Brothers Water to the inn at Kirkstonefoot where, as its name suggests, Kirkstone Pass properly begins. Suddenly most of the cars are gone. Ahead the road climbs south into the distance and I move inextricably, inevitably into that priceless zone where the world gets temporarily reduced to just you slowly moving upwards through turning pedals. (The longer we’re ‘forced’ to inhabit this zone the more ‘classic’ is the climb.)

Kirkstone Pass 1

It’s the highest pass in the Lakes, but Kirkstone is not too difficult a climb, and it’s a satisfying one. Going the other way the views down over Ullswater and its surrounding fells are incredible; this way it’s the straight line taken between the cosiness of lake, village and pasture up to the high fells which makes it special.

Kirkstone Pass 2

And then the apex, the glorious bit of road at the end of a long climb which precedes the magic moment when up turns finally to down. There are many things I’ll never experience, but to think in a life lived differently this could have been one …

When up turns to down

I crouch into the bike and hurtle down Troutbeck. The day’s hardest riding is done now, and from Staveley I’ll be homeward bound on familiar lanes, much like this morning’s largely devoid of cars, just made for bikes.

Close to home

Do long rides like this much matter? For me a day in the saddle is simultaneously a day off, a day free from care. There’s a tendency to see cycling as hard work, but it’s equally possible to see it as taking it easy. I suppose some people laze on beaches or go to spas for their rejuvenation. Me, so long as I can remember, I’ve rejuvenated by being on a bike. Also, the longer I live and ride in north-west England, the more I seem to invite it to inform and shape my biography. The more places I ride and reach by bike, I suppose, the more personally meaningful they become. So being all day on a bike extends and deepens my sense of home.

In a sustainable world I suppose I think both these things matter.

Fun Cycling

July 3, 2013

Riding Grizedale's Red Route

My twelve-year-old son Bob wants cycling to be fun. He’d love life to be one long, uninterrupted stunt show. He craves the adrenaline rush. He’s fearless, constantly searching for, then rising to the next physical challenge, driven to test his limits. Watching him play sometimes scares me so much that – not wanting to stop his boyhood thriving – I look the other way. If his body senses a barrier, it seems compelled to surmount it. Pleasure is for him bodily, not cognitive. He loves fun fairs, laughs out loud at slapstick, and takes wicked delight in playing tricks on sister Flo.

The more fun cycling is, the more he wants to do it. But much of his cycling isn’t much fun, like we’ve taken the fun out of cycling. He rides because he must, as part of a carless family. With enough persuasion he’ll join a family leisure ride. But the riding he wants to do is riding he finds fun: he finds time trialling slightly fun, bunch racing more fun, track racing still more fun, and BMX and mountain biking greatest fun of all.

On the boardwalk

But there are different kinds of mountain biking, and my idea of mountain biking isn’t fun: I want mountain biking to contain those things I find enjoyable about road riding – lack of impediment, smoothness, duration, flow; Bob wants the opposite – obstacles, friction, interruption, difficulty. The rides we’ve done since getting mountain bikes for Christmas have usefully built our off-road skills and confidence, but they’ve been so far away from what makes Bob thrive I almost wince. Slowly trudging over barren, windswept moor does not for him constitute fun, even if the descents are exhilarating.

So giving Bob the MTB fun he craves felt overdue. This means trail centre riding, the more challenging the better. Last year we hired bikes at first Mabie and then Grizedale Forests to get a taste of this style of riding, but we stuck to easy green and blue routes which left Bob unfulfilled, frustrated. Clearly it was time to move up a level, to try a red route. This is Grizedale’s Red Route description:

This trail will take you through the forest by way of sinuous singletrack, offering adrenalising sections of singletrack descent and leg burning climbs. Be warned, there are plenty of challenging boardwalks in case you needed more to be scared of! This trail is suitable for mountain bikers only and requires a high level of skill and fitness.

It doesn’t mention fun, but Bob’s eyes shone as I read it out loud; this is just the kind of language which speaks to him. This sounds like cycling fun!

Falling off

Bam! Bam! Bam! Riding singletrack is like being in a video game where things keep coming at you – rocks, roots, branches, trees – and you must decide whether to dodge or tackle them (my instinct is to dodge; Bob’s – because it’s more fun – to tackle). One thing is quickly eclipsed by the next; there’s no time to dwell, let alone reflect. On the toughest stretches you can’t take your eye off the trail for a second.

Our riding speed is somewhere between the two speeds we regularly move through the countryside – more slowly when hill-walking, faster when road cycling – but the sensation is quite different from either. Riding these narrow, rocky trails requires more intense concentration and quicker reaction than hill-walking ever does, and a much more intimate, nuanced and responsive relationship between terrain, body and bike than road cycling. Because I’m timid I stay mainly upright, but Bob falls often – he shrugs off his tumbles and fears falling so little that he takes risks and learns fast, racing from feature to feature as I follow clumsily behind. I feel my comfort zone intensely, but it’s a concept he seems not to know.

Features are most fun, especially the sections of raised boardwalks and rock paths. These represent specific challenges, test your skill and nerve, and make crystal clear whether you succeed or fail. If Bob fails he tries again. Although I have a go these things feel to me like obstacles placed awkwardly in our path, blocking our ride; which is of course exactly what they are, but Bob interprets them ‘properly’ – to him they’re the whole point we’re here, and form the heart of our ride.

Smooth singletrack

Road riding gives me enormous pleasure but I’d be hard pressed to call it fun. Riding Grizedale’s Red Route helps me see my normal cycling in fresh light – as slightly detached and ponderous. Compared to mountain biking in Bob’s exuberant company, my road riding seems a bit serious; it makes me wonder whether I’m a grumpy old roadie who’s got no sense of cycling fun.

Is cycling fun? Is cycle commuting fun? Could it be? Should it be? Youthful sub-cultures of cycling seem a lot of fun – looking cool on a bike, bicycle polo, alleycats, generally larking around and having fun on bikes. Can we learn something from cycling that’s fun – from mountain biking, from these youthful sub-cultures, from the fun that people – perhaps especially kids – get from cycling?

Is it time to inject more fun into cycling?

Snowdrop One Hundred

February 4, 2013

My road bike is back in action, the snow and ice have almost gone. And compared to most of January the first day of February was forecast to be mild and dry. So I took advantage, celebrating the start of the last month of winter with a long ride. February’s weather can be harsh but sometimes its sun has warmth, and the days keep getting longer. And look, snowdrops are out! Surely a sign of spring’s approach.

Snowdrops

The world’s opening up again, and mine with it. A quick breakfast and I’m out by 7, planning a second more leisurely feast forty miles into the ride. I follow the River Lune upstream, cross it into Halton, and take the back road to Kirkby Lonsdale; I see my first snowdrops at dawn in its graveyard.

Snowdrops at Kirkby Lonsdale church

I take the road north-west towards Kendal. I don’t drop into the town but turn north at Oxenholme to skirt its eastern side along little-used lanes to Meal Bank. I cross the Rivers Mint, Sprint and Kent in quick succession and stop at Wilf’s in Staveley for that second breakfast.

From Staveley I climb south to Crook and then turn west to Windermere. A hundred mile ride is a day out of life. It’s a day spent moving through other places. Those places would be there anyway, but by riding through them we make them places for cycling, and they in turn add colour to our cycling biographies, and make us as cyclists.

The Windermere ferry’s a gift to Lakeland cycling. It lets you avoid bigger roads and stay off the beaten track. The rule is cyclists on last, off last, so on the other side with any cars gone you get the road to Hawkshead to yourself. It’s a glorious stretch, with Lakeland’s central fells rising up front, drawing closer all the time.

Windermere

Friday’s ferry was empty save for me, and I was given the trip across England’s longest lake for free (it usually costs £1). It’s a stiff climb off the lake to Far Sawrey. This is the ride’s literary stretch; past Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top home at Near Sawrey, and alongside Esthwaite Water into Hawskhead (the village centre’s closed to cars, which adds to the quiet pleasure of riding past William Wordsworth’s school).

Hawkshead village centre

Then it’s up Hawkshead Hill, taking care not to push too hard. I ride 100 miles rarely, and there’s a right way of riding them. That’s above all carefully! I ride with the end in mind, making sure to save something for the last third.

View from Hawkshead Hill

This is the heart of today’s ride, on roads ordinarily out of reach. I drink their novelty. The descent through the woods to Coniston Water is especially fine. Then at the Lake’s northern tip I turn south and trace its eastern shore. John Ruskin’s home is here, Brantwood. More easily accessed from the industrial south once the railways (opposed by Wordsworth) were built, the shores of the southern lakes are sprinkled with the mansions of wealthy Victorian men including, for all his socialism, Ruskin. But he loved nature and when you see his home and its views (views which perhaps contributed to his thoughts?) you can understand his extravagance.

Ruskin's Brantwood and Coniston

I pedal gently below the beech woodlands of Coniston’s sheltered shore. My legs appreciate the easier terrain but still I feel the fatigue building. The woodland’s ground is coated with autumn’s fallen leaves. Their colours are vivid after the white blanket of recent weeks.

Coniston's eastern shore

Beech leaves

I ride beside the River Crake as it leaves the Lakes, travelling south out Coniston Water towards Morecambe Bay. It flows under Lowick Bridge and Spark Bridge, where I leave it to head round to Bouth. I’m cheered by the Twenty’s Plenty sign; the push for slower speeds isn’t just an urban one, it’s happening here in rural Cumbria too.

20's Plenty in the country

The road from Haverthwaite to Grange-over-Sands takes me through Cark, Flookburgh and Allithwaite. It’s a lovely route which for the most part marks the line where hills give way to moss, marsh, mudflat and, finally, sea. By Grange I’ve covered 80 miles. My hunger for food has gone, but I know my body needs fuel. I stop at Hazelmere Bakery and eat enough to get me through the homeward leg.

Heading home

The route from here’s a familiar one, across the flat moss roads, then beneath Whitbarrow Scar to Levens, and from there across the River Kent and south via little lanes I’ve learnt like most cyclists to link up as a peaceful alternative to the A6. The last part of a long ride’s so different from the first. My curiosity in the wider world’s blunted and replaced by growing introspection, as tiredness reallocates my body’s dwindling resources. Places through which I pass no longer grab my attention; they’re still there, but my focus now is on turning pedals and steering home. I don’t dislike the sensation, it’s part of the long ride experience. A hundred mile ride starts with a target and ends with a memory, but perhaps the best bit is – back at home at the day’s end – the feeling of exhaustion earned.

I wonder whether I’ll ever tire of what feels to me now like the pure privilege and pleasure of a full day spent on my bike?

Mountain Biking

January 5, 2013

Bobby climbing Longsledale Pass

January’s off to an exceptionally mild start in England’s north-west. Riding conditions have been ideal for this time of year, so I’m getting some decent miles in. I’m a road cyclist at heart; I advocate for more quality, dedicated space for cycling in cities but out in the countryside I love riding on roads – the quieter the better. But yesterday the winter road bike took a rest and Bobby and I went mountain biking in the Lake District.

Until now I’ve only dabbled in mountain biking. It’s never held much appeal, but I’m hoping that’s about to change. I’ve an eleven year old son. For him the idea of hurtling fast downhill over rocky ground is much more exciting than pedalling fluidly across smooth tarmac. Last year we experimented with mountain biking as a family, hiring bikes at both Grizedale in the Lakes and Mabie in southern Scotland. At Mabie we also got some coaching in the basics from Ruth Asbery of Bottle Green Biking. Sue and Flo tolerated these experiences, but they’re in no hurry to repeat them. I quite enjoyed them, though I remain much happier on the road. But Bobby simply shone. He shows little fear, rising to and relishing the challenge of traversing difficult ground.

This is a lad who’s growing up fast and like most kids can easily spend whole weekends glued to screens. So we bought two mountain bikes for Christmas. My hope is we’ll make mountain biking a shared activity and maintain a bond between us. If there’s a chance it’ll prevent – or at least defer – our drifting apart, I’m up for it.

Bikes out of boxes and ready to ride, yesterday was the start. And an experiment … We’re surrounded by fantastic mountain biking country, but how to get there without a car? We took the train to Staveley. Fingers’ crossed it always goes as smoothly. £11.05 return for both us and our bikes to get to a great departure point, complete with super café, fantastic pub/brewery, and excellent bike shop. This could be the beginning of a great adventure.

We rode north on tarmac to begin with, up Kentmere valley. It was so mild we rode without gloves. The River Kent flowed fast; it’s been a wet Christmas. I’d never travelled this road before – on a road bike, it doesn’t go anywhere. As the valley widens at Kentmere Tarn a splendid view unfurls of high fells to the north. I was seeing the Lakes in a new way, and beginning to see the magic in mountain biking. Riding alongside Bobby felt great. I think like me he was excited and apprehensive at a ride started but still unknown. My (irrational) irritation with his holiday slovenliness, which I’d felt building over Christmas and New Year, dissolved under the pleasure of riding together through the weak winter light.

Concentrating hard!

Just short of the road head at Hallow Bank we turned east to start the steep stony climb up Longsleddale Pass. Across uneven ground Bobby rides with a grace I can scarcely believe. Meanwhile I’m almost spectacularly inept, struggling to hold my nerve and line through slippery mud and stone. Technically he’s way better than me, though rides such as this should force me to improve. I’m surprised how much concentration it takes to stay upright and move forward. When I lose focus my foot goes almost immediately to ground. Sue and I sometimes worry Bobby struggles to focus on school work; but such anxieties evaporate out here, seeing him flow, in his element.

Difficult descent

Mountain biking seduces me. The relationship to your immediate environment, especially the ground just ahead, is intense; the effort required hard, yet over so quickly. The experience creates deep moments different from those produced through road rides (the closest equivalent is a really demanding climb). It’s intoxicating.

The descent off the Pass is incredibly steep and technical, full of jagged, unforgiving rock. I’m relieved Bobby is happy to dismount for the most difficult section. It’s a challenge just to steady our bikes, made frisky without our weights on them. We turn south onto a bridleway across open fell. Mist descends, drizzle sets in, and the going gets tough – neither the ease of tarmac nor the exhilaration of technical track, this is simply bog. It feels exposed and hostile. It’s time to dig in. I worry Bobby will falter, but he doesn’t.

Muddy bridletrack

We spend long sections pushing through mud. I have the same ambivalent feeling I get when fell walking in harsh weather; part of me wanting to be down in the valley, cosy and safe, but part of me happy to stay up high, because it’s the continuing experience which produces the yearning for comfort and which enables its eventual indulgence to be truly savoured.

We plough south round Cocklaw, Green Quarter and Staveley Head Fells and finally the ground begins to fall away. With gravity in our favour we’re able now able to ride over the kind of terrain which on the upward side had stopped us in our tracks. We hit a long section of single track which snakes down off the moorland. Something switches in my head and I’m suddenly able to go for it in a way which a couple of hours earlier I couldn’t have. Bobby keeps with me easily as we fly down the fell. The last miles are a delicious clattering blur of rock, stone, mud and moss. Contrary to my expectations this is a superb way to be experiencing my favourite corner of the world. We rocket onto Hall Lane and down over Barley Bridge into Staveley. The descent ensures we finish with an adrenaline rush which will I hope make us impatient to return.

Mud spattered, we eat a late lunch and hang out in Wilf’s Café. And I think how happy I’d be to have five more years of this mountain biking.

Just married!

April 19, 2012

After knowing each other 26 years, and being a couple for 20, Sue and I got married on Sunday, in a ceremony on the shore of Ullswater in the Lake District. Our wedding was organised by our children, Bobby and Flo, with the help of the BBC, and forms part of a new TV series, ‘Marrying Mum and Dad’.

Working with the BBC has been a fantastic experience for all of us, but particularly Bobby and Flo. They now know how a TV programme is made – and so have a better understanding of the complex (and political) processes of cultural production and (once they’ve seen the ‘final result’) representation.

I’d have liked cycling to figure centrally on our wedding day, but knew that – by handing control to my children and the BBC – I’d have to accept what I was given! One thing under my control was my stag party; the BBC had no interest in this – too much alcohol and too few children! So a celebratory pre-wedding bike ride was in order.

Most of us met at Dalton Square in the centre of Lancaster. This was a real coming-together of men with different connections to me and also to cycling. Two of my brothers-in-law, Derek and Mike, have probably got more interested in cycling through their relationship to me. Derek’s from Dublin, Ireland, but lives with my sister, Sally, just down the road in Lancaster. Mike, Sue’s brother, is originally from southern England, but lives in County Cork, Ireland; just the previous week we’d ridden together from his home in Schull to Ireland’s most south-westerly point at Mizen Head.

There were guys who I’ve come to know mainly through riding: John K, Colin and Jim ride on Monday nights, come rain or shine, all year round – over the last few years I’ve sometimes joined them, ridden sportives with them, and gone away for occasional weekends with them, and Jim and I are riding together in France for 10 days in June. Jon B, meanwhile, has for the last couple of years been my most regular training partner.

There were guys who I campaign with – John L, Paul and Rob are fellow members of Dynamo, Lancaster and District’s Cycling Campaign. John L has been involved since the start, back in 1994. Paul had torn himself away from domestic duties; Sue and I were thrilled that his and Kathy’s second daughter, by then just 6 days old, was present at our wedding party at Glenridding Village Hall on Sunday evening.

And there were guys who I got to know originally through green politics, and with who – over the years – I’ve shared all kinds of adventures, bike-based and otherwise: Baz (who took these photos – thanks Baz!), Jon S, Cen and Mark.

There was Ian, who Sue and I once lived with in London – he also got married outdoors in the Lake District, to Ellie, and soon afterwards they rode overland across Europe and Africa from their then-home in Kendal to their new home in Cape Town, South Africa, where Ian is originally from (though they’ve recently returned to Kendal).

And Graham, who bought a touring bike last year, to pedal around the Isle of Man, and will this year ride around the Yorkshire Dales.

Blessed with a fine, dry evening, my plan was to ride up to Jubilee Tower before sunset. This would give us a view to remember, taking in Blackpool Tower and the Fylde, Morecambe Bay, the Isle of Man, and the Lake District; and it would also mean getting the hard work out of the way – Jubilee Tower is only around 5 miles out of Lancaster, but 287 metres above sea level and a stiff climb pretty much all the way.

Up the tower we drank whiskey as the sun set, then descended in the cold to my favourite bike-friendly local pub, The Stork at Conder Green. When we were chucked out, we rode along the Lune estuary, emptied the bottles of whiskey by bike light after midnight, and wobbled back into Lancaster. Thanks guys, for indulging me, giving me a great night, and new memories of Jubilee Tower which will return when I pass it the rest of my life.

The girls, by the way, also got out and about – they chose to walk, heading up Arnside Knott for food, champagne, singing and general frivolity.

I’m glad our wedding wasn’t the next day – I needed it to recover. We were, however, doing more filming with the BBC, before they packed the four of us off by train – Bobby and Flo did a (disturbingly?) fantastic job of keeping everything secret, so even at this point Sue and I had no idea where we were going, or what we were doing.

So it was lovely to find we were heading for Penrith, and then, once off the train, to realise we were travelling south-west along Ullswater, past Glenridding to Old Water View, a lovely B&B in Patterdale for the night (as I practised my speech in a gorgeous spot by the river the next morning, a pair of nuthatches flew down and played round my feet).

This is a part of the world we know and love. (I guess the kids thought of it partly because a couple of years back we’d had a fantastic family adventure, kayaking Ullswater together, before climbing Helvellyn via Striding Edge from Glenridding; and also because on a recent trip to the Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere we’d treated ourselves to a print of  one of William Cooper Heaton’s very fine paintings of the lake, which now adorns our living room.)

Our wedding day was pretty wild from start to finish. Bikes weren’t prominent; although Sue and I had already been filmed riding our tandem, and there were some lovely bike-oriented touches – on our wedding cake, and amongst the table decorations – a broken bike helmet as a plant pot anyone? (It’s kind of weird but also ace that our wedding marquee was decorated by a BBC set designer).

In hindsight, however, I think the BBC ‘got it about right’, in framing our wedding as ‘eco’ and inserting bikes as just one aspect of that. That fits with how I see bicycles – integral to a green way of life; and also how bicycles figure in our own, ordinary lives – although my professional work might fetishise them, their importance lies in how they enable particular ways of life, and – so long as they are centred instead of the car – disable other ways of life.

We’re not naive; the representation of us as a couple and family specifically, and of ‘green lifestyles’ more generally, isn’t within our control. We played along with certain, well-established cultural tropes (parents as boring), knowingly disrupted others (parents as in charge), and played along with caricatures of green living (being filmed down on our allotment, and riding our tandem). But we’re merely the raw material from which a team of people will produce a TV programme, and the degree to which these aspects of our lives and identities are portrayed sympathetically, comically or critically is up to those more influential cultural producers. Nonetheless, we hope that as well as forming ‘children’s entertainment’, our 30 minutes of fame might also have some educational value, and – however represented – at least push alternative ideas and visions of family life momentarily into the mainstream cultural frame.

All the guests pledged money to Wateraid

Certainly, we look forward to seeing how our lives are represented when the show comes to screen later this year. Until then, thanks to our wonderful friends and family for contributing at such short notice to so memorable a day, for suffering the waiting required by the BBC’s filming on a cold if dry day, and for indulging us and making us feel truly lucky and special. I can honestly say I’ve never felt more affirmed than as I sat listening to my brother Bruce, my best man, deliver his speech, then again as Sue and her mates – Anni, Sue K, Betty and Sharon – sang so joyfully for me, and finally as minus Sue, they sang a superb version of Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen in Love with Someone (you shouldn’t’ve)’ to the two of us. We never intended to get married, but now we have done – and given the unusual circumstances – we’re glad we did.

Autumnal cycling in north-west England

September 27, 2010

I love the weather in north-west England, and the last two weekends I’ve been lucky enough to experience it in all its magnificent diversity.

Last Saturday, following the brilliant (he says immodestly) Bicycle Politics workshop, I rode across to Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales, to join up with Colin, Jim and John, who’d been there since Thursday, getting lots of quality miles in. They’d enjoyed a couple of dry and sunny days, but on Saturday the weather changed, so that when I met up with them outside the youth hostel at 6pm, we were all pretty soggy. Sunday was forecast to be wet, and indeed it was – it started damp and drizzly, and got wetter, and wetter, and wetter from there …

But not once during that long wet day did I feel miserable. It helped that it was relatively warm; it’s when wet combines with cold that I sometimes really start to question the wisdom of being out on the road. And it helped that I was in such fine company; riding roads with people who also love to ride those roads, and who recognise themselves as similarly privileged in being able to do so – that’s real privilege!  Although there is banter and piss-taking in other regards, when during one or other of our rides one or other of us pauses to reflect on our intensely good fortune, he is never met with macho scorn and ridicule, but always with a shared sense that we must indeed be the luckiest men in the world … there is no price for what we experience out there on our region’s roads …

Last Sunday we rode from Wharfedale over to Bishopdale and then west through Wensleydale for coffee in Bainbridge. We crossed the valley to Askrigg and climbed over Cross Top to Muker in Swaledale. North-west from there, over Birkdale Common and then the long descent into Nateby, for a generous welcome and lunch at the Black Bull Inn, where Jim showed me how to dry your track mitts by treading them into a carpet, and where I hope no one had to sit where we sat for a good few hours after … South up the ever-beautiful Mallerstang, then fast west down the always-pleasureable Garsdale into Sedbergh, where, having checked the cafe’s seats were wooden and immune to saturation by our sodden clothes, we enjoyed afternoon tea. Down Garsdale the rain had become much heavier, and it continued as we rode south along the west side of our Lune towards Kirkby Lonsdale, and on for tea at the Bridge Inn. There the four of us squeezed into the gents’ toilets, and emerged in dry clothes like new men to devour our tea and drink our beer before, late into the night, setting off again to get one final drenching along flooded roads on our way back home to our beds. 90 miles, a couple of thousand metres of climbing, huge amounts of rain – the kind of day which makes me glad to be alive and able to enjoy that kind of day.

If I’d been at home last Sunday, I’d have probably on several occasions looked out the window and failed to find the motivation to get outside. No matter how exhilarating cycling through difficult conditions can be, it’s still hard to force yourself out there to do it. Comfort too often, too easily, wins out over the potential to feel exhilarated.

This weekend was different. The forecast was dry for Saturday, and – with Bobby and Flo happily off with Sue, Paddy, Ben and Rachel for the weekend – Sue and I pedalled north through the Yealands, over the River Kent, around Whitbarrow and up the gorgeous Winster valley, to drop down to Bowness-on-Windermere a few very happy hours later.

Yesterday we took the ferry across Windermere and rode up through the Sawreys and down to Esthwaite Water, before riding south into another little south lakeland gem of a valley, the Rusland. The sun continued to shine, and we arrived home after 2 days and 100 miles pedalling through north-west September England as dry as we had left. The dryness of the weekend was all the more enjoyable because of the previous weekend’s damp, and the dampness of that weekend stands out because such dampness is not entirely typical. Here in autumnal north-west England there is no typical, and the uneven climate combines with the uneven topography to produce an extra-special slice of the cycling universe.

So here’s my little thought for the next time you’re thinking about making a cycling journey, and you check the forecast or look outside, and you realise that if you go by bike then you’re in for a soaking – go for it anyway. Experiences do not stand alone; they speak to, and so importantly make, each other. And of course, in making each other, they are also making us …

Time trialling

September 21, 2009

Sunday, 5:30 am, the alarm doesn’t rouse me, I’d turned it off by mistake sometime during a broken night’s sleep, but I’m awake anyway, waiting for dawn to break yet slowly realising that I’ll be riding before it does.

Downstairs everything is waiting, prepared the night before. I’m remembering how to do this. My bike is cleaned if not perfectly adjusted (note again, to book myself onto a bike maintenance course), my clothes laid out.

I’m here, doing the stuff you have to do to participate in a sport. First I feel pleased with myself, then I feel smug for feeling pleased with myself, and then I reassure myself there’s nothing hollow about this, and I feel pleased over again. I eat a bowl of muesli and yoghurt, drink a mug of tea, make an expresso and leave it to cool whilst getting ready to leave.

I’d planned to leave at 6:15. By 6 I’m worried I’ve not left enough time to reach the race. It’s still dark. I find a front and back light and fumble them onto my bike. Swig the coffee, then off, out of the still sleeping house.

I love riding when the streets are empty. I love riding in the night. Whenever I do, I remember I don’t do it enough. Over the Lune, north out of Lancaster into the purple sky.

I’m riding 20 miles to a race, the kind of thing I’ve not done since I was a kid. It’s Lancaster CC’s open 25 mile time trial on the Levens and Lindale course. My start time is 8:09am.

The A6 slumbers. I spin the gears through Slyne-with-Hest, Bolton-le-Sands and Carnforth. A voice is behind me. It’s Graham Atkinson’s; he’s riding to his marshalling duties. He rides fixed, 48×18. Turning the pedals at 100 revs a minute, he rides 20 mph. We ride side-by-side and chat, I drop back for a tow, we chat again, I break a sweat, shout to Graham that I’d better drop back, and he soon disappears into the road ahead, a lone figure against a still lightening countryside. Graham trains as fast as I race. This year.

I don’t want to overdo it before I start. I haven’t ridden a 25 mile time trial yet this year. I’ve one today, then another next week. I rode one last year, in 73 mins, 33 seconds. My goal at the start of this year was to ride the distance in under 70 minutes.

I find the start. Two long lines of cars are parked either side of the lane. Some riders warm up on rollers pulled from car boots still gaping in the cold morning air. I sign on and collect my number from event HQ,  a gazebo with table and trophy standing silent there. The team of marshals huddle together, awaiting instructions from race organiser Ken Peasnell.

Clive Scott, one of today’s helpers, pins number 39 to my jersey. He’s happy for me to leave the gear I don’t want to carry whilst I race (clothes, one of my spare tubes, food and drink for afterwards) in his van. Clive’s son George is in there, watching a DVD or playing a computer game. For a second he reminds me of myself, in my childhood, waiting in cars – neither participating nor helping, occupying a kind of in-between space and time … but George rides bikes, races bikes, already; it took me years to find that kind of place for myself …

I chat to Judith Irving, who will leave one minute before me. At the start we meet again, and wish each other luck. She’s off. I move to the start line, am held up, watch the seconds count down, click in, try to regulate my breathing …

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go … this is when the world goes into the background, this is when hopefully less than 70 minutes of time-out starts. It’s certainly some kind of freedom …

The first stretch is downhill. I’m up to 32 miles per hour, but trying not to overdo it. Less than 2 miles into the race, Richard Handley, who started a minute behind me, comes past; my mind starts calculating, ‘at that pace he should beat me by about 13 minutes’ (he does, and more … he’s an excellent young rider).

It strikes me as a slightly strange way to spend a Sunday morning, hammering as hard as I’m able – along with around a hundred other people – along the A590 in south Cumbria. But then I start wondering what all the people inside all the vehicles coming past me are up to, and everything – car boot sales, mountain walks, tourism – also starts to seem pretty weird.

I beat my target. 68 minutes, 12 seconds. I’m chuffed. Everything’s relative. Here, among these people, that’s slow. Compared to where I was a year ago, let alone five years ago, it’s not at all bad. I see Judith at the finish. She’s done around 1:06:30. I congratulate her, she congratulates me. I say I’d better get home, 68 miles under my belt, for a family day out. The sun is shining, it’s a glorious autumn day. She says she’d better get home, see if her kids are up yet. Not bad, this cycling life, I think, and I bet she does too ..

My legs ache today, but my head doesn’t …


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