Winter riding’s full of pleasures. For me one of the greatest is the proximity of daybreak. Far more easily than in other seasons, you can leave the house in darkness, ride into and through the dawn, and out its other side. It’s just another ride, but also an adventure. I know it’s probably not for everyone, but nonetheless it’s an experience I highly recommend.
This morning I left the house before seven. This early I like to ride through the still sleeping city centre. It’s almost empty of people, and those around don’t seem to mind the solitary cyclist.
Lancaster rises quickly and steeply to the east. The climbing starts at the Town Hall on Dalton Square. Going this way makes a hard start to a ride; sometimes it feels too hard, but it’s somehow more inviting when the streets are quiet, dark and cold; taking this road, spinning a low gear, warms you up nicely.
I start climbing to the sound of people scraping ice from car windscreens. It’s turned decidedly cold the last few days. A few minutes later I’m out of town, passing under the M6, already busy with traffic. This time of day in this part of the world most people are travelling north/south; few are going my way. The air’s so still the motorway’s noise stays with me for a long time as I climb higher. The road undulates its way south-east, the crescent moon bobbing on my horizon to the south as I go.
The road drops steeply down Quernmore Valley. At the bottom the climb to Jubilee Tower begins. From Quernmore crossroads the road really ramps up, leaving the village and valley behind, set almost straight for the moors. Just five miles from the city’s centre at the Tower I’m already 300 metres high.
East through the Trough of Bowland. The trees began as shadows in the dark but are gradually becoming more deeply etched against the steadily lightening sky. By Dunsop Bridge I no longer need my lamp to light the road ahead. Gulls swirl and starlings swarm above the fields of the Hodder Valley.
By Slaidburn, twenty miles into my ride, the sky is clear, the sun has finally crept above the horizon, and the day feels properly broken. Of course it’s still early on a mid-winter’s day but the contrast with my departure in darkness an hour and a half earlier makes me feel I’ve reached a place of comfort and ease. Sunshine makes the riding easier.
Getting close to trees is the biggest winter cycling pleasure for me. I love to see their shapes, skeletons, limbs unclothed by leaves. A de-cluttering of the landscape under the dark and cold renders their naked forms majestic. They stand strong and proud. I find them impossible to ignore; though other things inevitably get in the way I fix my gaze on one, then – as I move past – find another, solo winter riding a joyful procession between magnificent trees, standing sentinel over the sleeping land.
At Slaidburn there’s ice on the Croasdale Brook Bridge, and my tyres slip twice as I start the climb to the Cross. The low January sun at my back lends a golden hue to Bowland’s fells. With the sunshine, lack of wind, and my body warming with the climb, it’s stopped feeling like a mid-winter’s ride.
Over 400 metres up at the Cross o’Greet I’m well above the fog now filling the valleys whichever way I look. The top of Ingleborough away to the north looks for all the world like an island of its own. I drop down towards Bentham, then turn west along Mewith Lane towards Wray. The fog thickens and the temperature drops. By closing off my wider view, the fog forces awareness and appreciation of the immediate. The broader environment out of the way, I feel more intimately placed as I pass. I’m the moving centre of a clear pocket of air with perhaps a twenty metre radius. Moisture drips as I pass below the trees lining the River Hindburn which I follow into Wray; as the fog’s thickened they’ve become ghosts. It’s so still I hear approaching vehicles, but hope their drivers see my penetrating lights long before me. It could feel claustrophobic were it not to feel so eerily beautiful and special.
Over the Hindburn before Wray and the Wenning before Hornby. There I turn north to cross the Lune at the only point possible between Halton six miles to the south and Kirkby Lonsdale eight miles to the north. The fog holds its height and I drop in and out of it as I cross the folds and furls of the Lune’s north side. By the turn off to Aughton I know it’s downhill or flat almost all the way home and I back off slightly, starting quietly to savour the gentle satisfaction of another ride almost done.
Back in fog-bound Lancaster, I can hardly believe only a few hours ago I set off in darkness, to ride through and out of the breaking day and into glorious sunshine. Like most rides my memory of this one will quickly dim. Nevertheless they accumulate, these rides, eh?