I spent a long weekend with some of the Monday nighters, doing some hard riding around the north of England. On Friday we rode from Lancaster to Nenthead, high in the Pennines, via Kirkby Lonsdale, Sedbergh, Appleby-in-Westmorland and Hartside. On Sunday we rode from Brompton-in-Swale, just to the east of Richmond, back home to Lancaster, via Redmire, Coverdale, Littondale and our usual last resting post, The Bridge Inn near Wennington. The sun shone on us, mainly, on Sunday. Here’s a stretch of road which runs along the south-east base of Pen-y-ghent, connecting Halton Gill and Stainforth. As you can see, we’ve got some pretty good cycling infrastructure in the Yorkshire Dales.
And here’s Colin and me consulting the map, with Pen-y-ghent looming behind.
So we had plenty of hills. But it’s Saturday’s ride, when we also had the wind to contend with, on which I want to concentrate, briefly, here. We began the day riding north through Allendale, towards Hadrian’s Wall. Then Jules turned west, to Brampton and into the teeth of a strengthening gale, whilst Colin, John and I flew east past Hexham before veering south to Blanchland. I nipped into the village shop for flapjack there, and asked the storekeeper if she knew what the wind would be doing. “Getting stronger this afternoon”, she told me, “you’re not going up are you?” We were, over the moors to Stanhope.
As we began the climb we had some shelter. But as we climbed higher there was no escape from the wind. Towards the top, out on the moor, we were riding on the right-hand side of the road, so that when the wind took us, we had the road’s width in which to steady ourselves and remain upright. There was so little traffic, this was a sensible strategy.
Over the top and down the other side we accelerated into trouble. I could feel the wind lifting my wheels from the ground. It kept pushing me off the road, into the verge. John came past me, his body and bike tilted towards the wind, so he was riding at about 70 degrees to the tarmac. I entered a space of complete concentration. Not flow, I felt far too inept and clumsy for that. But I became completely preoccupied with battling the wind, and somehow making it through.
The next time I left the road I looked behind to see a car stopped alongside Colin, who was on the ground. I saw him struggling to his feet, then getting knocked back down again. From where I was, it looked like some kind of surreal comedy, so insanely slapstick that I could imagine it being a Laurel and Hardy sketch. Not silent of course, the wind roared. The wind, it has to be said, was just magnificent.
I tried walking back up the hill with my bike. Impossible. I dumped it in the ditch, and struggled back up to him. If we stood close and shouted, we could just about make ourselves heard before the wind ripped our voices away. He’d pulled over to let the car pass, which had left him with no room for manoeuvre. He’d gone head first over the handlebars, and the bike had landed on top of him. The couple in the car were concerned that he was OK. He was, but I think the incident had completed dented what little faith he may have had remaining in his ability to get down to the valley by bike.
I continued down, and reached the junction with the Edmundbyers-Stanhope road. There was more car traffic along here. Some of the drivers were very good – they were able to see, and respond appropriately to, the difficulties we were having. Others drove atrociously. Later Colin told me how one driver passing him blared his horn, gesticulated wildly, and mouthed obscenities. I guess, from where he sat, and without an ounce of empathy or solidarity with the cyclist’s condition, it looked like we were holding him up. I guess, in a bizarre and rather ineffective way, we were trying particularly hard to assert our right to the road.
I developed a riding style (using that term loosely) that seemed to work. It involved desperately clinging onto my bike, with one foot clipped in and the other dangling near the ground, so I was ready to dismount every time I left the road.
A little further down, John was waiting. I told him that Colin had crashed, but was OK. John went back up to look for him. By now it had become a very weird drama, three men (as well as two mountain bikers, who I saw briefly, storm-blown statues frozen into the landscape, looking for all the world as though they were completely unable to proceed) stumbling slowly down off a mountain, seeking sanctuary in the valley below, a valley which seemed almost impossible to reach. But finally I got down to a cattle-grid, where I sheltered in the lee of a farm-house, and waited for the others to arrive.
Maybe five minutes passed. A car pulled up. The woman inside told me she’d taken Colin down to Stanhope, and had come back to see if either John or I needed help. A good samaritan! Suddenly the drivers who had passed too close and too fast, seemingly oblivious to our predicament, were trumped in my mind by a single person who’d been willing to help. Colin told me later that she stopped when she saw him lying beside the road, completely exhausted and devoid of a strategy for how to continue. He’d tried to stand up with his bike, his bike had been flipped into the air, he’d been knocked over and his bike had landed on top of him … This lightweight gear’s not all it’s cracked up to be, eh?
John and I had survived the hard bit, so were happy to ride the rest of the way down to Stanhope. What a contrast there! Stanhope’s a lovely little town, full of fine stone buildings. At lunchtime on Saturday it seemed outrageously calm, dignified, impervious to the elements.
Entering the cafe on Stanhope high street was even more surreal. Everything, everybody seemed normal, as if nothing had happened, which of course, for them, it hadn’t. It was like one of those non-stop adventure films where the action suddenly, rudely enters into other people’s everyday lives, destabilising business-as-usual and producing comedy out of the contrast between the intense pace of the action and the stillness of everything else. Couples were sitting quietly, sipping tea from old-fashioned cups which sat elegantly on their saucers. The civility of the tea-room forced us to compose ourselves, but still we must have seemed raucous, rowdy and ever-so-slightly wild.
I wouldn’t swap my place on a bike for the world, even on a day like Saturday. I was a bit scared, I was on the edge of my capacity to keep upright on a bike, and I was exhausted, but I was also exhilarated. The wind breathes life into you. The wind revives. It makes you feel alive …
Wind is seen as a barrier to cycling. But it is also massively constitutive of our cycling experiences. What we cannot avoid, we encounter, experience and embody. The wind makes us, as cyclists, as people who experience the world differently because we ride bikes.
If you ride a bike you know how powerful the wind can be. You sit on a bike. On a bike you’re exposed. In contrast, you inhabit a car, you’re enclosed, sheltered, including from the elements, including from the wind. I think we should celebrate this difference. Admittedly, our experience up in the Pennines on Saturday was a bit extreme, but in general I struggle to understand why we should see the way cycling exposes you to the elements, including the wind, as a problem. Riding in the wind can be hard. But it can also be inspiring. It’s also inevitable. We should see cycling as a way of making ourselves stronger, better people, and thus of making stronger, better cultures.
As with wind, so with some of the other so-called ‘barriers to cycling’, such as hills and rain. People who want to eliminate these ‘barriers to cycling’ want to fit cycling into the world-as-it-is, they want to bend cycling into an imperfect world, they want to make cycling ‘perfect’ so it can sustain imperfection. That’s so wrong. I’d rather people deal with, experience and perhaps learn the pleasures of these ‘barriers to cycling’, so that by cycling they contribute to the world-as-it-ought-to-be.