In praise of the cafe

What would we do were not the countryside dotted with welcoming places of food and drink? For the cyclist, the cafe’s a crucial resource, it enables us to ride, it makes our rides.

The cafe has today become for many people – people who arrive by car – a destination, a place to which they travel in order to go there. This isn’t so for the cyclist, who goes to a cafe in order to go for a ride; for the cyclist the cafe is a resource, not a destination.

And doesn’t that make the cafe so much better! The cafe matters so much more to us.

At this time of year, building the miles and my legs, I wouldn’t make some of the rides I make were it not for the cafe. Yesterday, for example, I set out from Lancaster, over Jubilee Tower and through the Trough of Bowland. At Dunsop Bridge I knew a decision had to be made – either turn right to struggle into the wind to Chipping and then fly north to home, or else a longer, harder route – left with the wind to Slaidburn, up over Bowland Knotts towards Clapham, and finish with a 15 mile push west into the still strengthening wind.

I took the  harder option, thanks to the cafe.

A few months from now, when I hope I’m fitter, stronger and leaner, I’ll not depend on them in quite the same way, though still they’ll have their uses. But for now, the cafe acts as both insurance and hospice. Confidence in making my rides gradually longer and harder comes from knowing there are cafes en route. I might not use them, but should I want to or need to, they’ll be there.

The cafe also breaks up these pre-season rides into more manageable chunks. My mileage dropped dramatically in the tail-end of last year, the snow and ice meaning I did no long rides at all through December. But a couple of weeks ago I learned I’d got a place in this year’s Fred Whitton Challenge. So over the next three months I must teach my body to ride more-or-less non-stop for 112 miles over all the Lakeland passes, the double-whammy of Hardknott and Wrynose Passes coming when I’ll already have 100 hard miles in my legs.

Last week I followed a 78 mile route along which I’d identified four potential cafe stops, at Ingleton (18 miles), Hawes (36 miles), Sedbergh (51 miles) and Kirkby Lonsdale (62 miles). Two months from now I’ll aim to use none of them, but last week I used two; after 36 miles into an icy head-wind I was ready for beans on toast at the Penny Garth Cafe in Hawes, and partly because it’s such a quick and easy stop I sank a mug of tea whilst eating my flapjack outside the caravan-cafe on Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale – both those places have stronger cultural allegiances with motorcycling, but they’re supremely useful and welcoming to the tired and/or hungry cyclist too.

Yesterday I almost rode on at Slaidburn, twenty miles in, but with the climb to Bowland Knotts at 422 metres just ahead, I decided instead to be cautious and replenish myself with a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast at the Riverbank Tea Rooms. What joy to sit outside in the sunshine, on 3rd February in the north of England! And what privilege to make such places meaningful to both ourselves and cycling by enrolling them into our rides, into our biographies, into the history of cycling itself.

A few times recently, and again yesterday, I’ve found myself approaching Wray – about 10 miles east of Lancaster – at lunchtime. And I seem to have struck a deal with myself – I stop for a quick lunch (the soup is always quick, and delicious) at Bridge House Farm, so long as afterwards I ride back to Lancaster the harder and longer way, on the north side of the River Lune.

The cafe is a building block in our cycling lives. We use the cafe in different ways at different times. But cyclists don’t just go to the cafe, cyclists have need for the cafe. The cafe is central to the cycling experience, and for that I think it ought to be praised.

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4 Responses to “In praise of the cafe”

  1. Dave Says:

    spot on – but a bit ‘individualist’ for a sociologist! when I was living over there, the Eureka, Two Mills, was the hub and heart of the Merseyside cycling community where, in many ways, I learnt to be a cyclist; it still is; it is just that I have moved. It has now become a place I/we can go to meet other cyclists from outside the Manchester cycling community where I am now based. Likewise a cafe like Beeston is somewhere I/we are likely to meet Merseysiders, or riders from the Potteries or Shropshire. The same applies to most of our stops. A social cement. They are also places where you can do a bit of bragging – as my Club the Seamons do in early March when we aim to fill the cafe in Llangollen, a 110 mile round trip. The owner became very attached to us – sadly now retired.

  2. alan Says:

    Speaking as a cyclist and someone who does ethnography, I think you have hit on something really interesting.

    I think you are right – when we are in a car ‘for a drive’ a cafe is a destination. However, we are distanced from the effort it takes to get there – the car does the work. We do not feel the hills, the kilojoules of energy required through fossil fuels to get there. When we are on the bike, we work to get to the cafe. In some dreadful weather, when we are ‘covering the story’ as the good doctor Hunter S. Thompson would say, when the wind is against us and the rain is so very Scottish, the food is better, what we drink tastes better… a function of us having to expend serious energy to get there. What is also a constant source of small pleasures are the simple encounters you have in a cafe with other cyclists, which in my own experience are generally good-natured and egalitarian; those which are not tend to stick in the mind as exceptions. We are fellow cyclists, with a ‘ticket to talk’ and can enjoy the provision of this shared topic and feeling of being part of a group.

    The cafe has such an interesting place in cycling. Brian Palmer in his Islay cycling blog the washing machine post (http://www.thewashingmachinepost.net/) comes back again and again to the cafe where they start and finish runs, or delay them as they might have another cappuccino. Then there is the Ardbeg distillery which offers a stop on the Ride of the Falling Rain…

    It also is a part of Tour de France culture. Up until the mid 70’s it was a regular feature of the Tour on hill stages that cafes would be raided by cyclists (or by ‘domestiques’ servicing their lead cyclists) grabbing whatever they could get, the idea being that the cyclists got some dutch courage before tackling something like Mount Ventoux. Tom Simpson’s death was suggested to be partly related to amphetamine use, but a factor might have been the dehydration due to a bottle of cognac ‘liberated’ by a domestique for their use before a very hot climb.

    I wonder if, as one gets more into cycling, the cafe features as a place where one gradually stitches together and performs their identity as a cyclist, or a particular type of cyclist. Certainly alongside the bike shop, the bike cafes appearing in London might allow this element. Some interesting possibilities I think.

  3. John Krug Says:

    Cafe? Surely you mean pub?

    • Dave Horton Says:

      You’ll have to wait for my eulogy to the pub, John! Besides, most people ride during the day and use cafes; it’s only nutters like you (and me, occasionally) who ride hard into the night and finally sink, exhausted, into the forgiving arms of the country pub …. to emerge a couple of hours later, raring to race those final miles home. But watch out, now you’ve suggested it, maybe I’ll bring my camera with me on next Monday’s ride!

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