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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?