A strong westerly blew me out through Wray, Low Bentham and Ingleton, and up the Hawes road past Ribblehead viaduct to Newby Head Pass. 420 metres up, surrounded by windswept moor, this is the ride’s highest point. In bad weather it’s a slightly bleak and discomforting place. The moors seem to stretch forever in all directions but actually I’m about to drop steeply down. It’s another world below, and amazing the speed at which by bike you move between here and there; when the weather is wild (and it often is) to descend is to move from vulnerability to safety, but in any weather it’s to move from the remote and inhospitable to the cosy and familiar. The presence of even the smallest village is reassuring when cycling through less peopled places.
These aren’t thoughts so much as moods, so fleeting I could almost miss them. They emerge then evaporate as I make my temporary place by pedalling through space. Neither thoughts nor moods settle; cycling bypasses psychology. A long ride especially squashes mulling and mithering, helping me dwell in a calmer place, to become a simpler being. It’s good for my mental health.
The best part of this ride starts at Newby Head Pass, with the turn onto the minor road into Dentdale. This is a ride within a ride really, pedalling Dentdale’s length. Although it’s a Yorkshire Dale, you enter Cumbria here.
The lane undulates over the moor at first, then turns north-west and drops. The viaducts of the Settle-Carlisle railway appear below, then a short stretch of steep descent later their mighty arches rise dramatically above. You need to watch the road – this is an elemental place and rock, stone and wood mark water’s path across its surface. And like many roads round here it’s been gouged away by the long, hard winter. But especially when riding alone I crane my neck to witness the convoluted topography as it swiftly shifts from moor to dale. There’s no static point. Occasionally I make one by stopping for a photo, but this upsets the ideal cycling experience – cycling’s magic is the elimination of a fixed viewpoint, replaced by the fluid and continuous unfolding of the tight relationship between bike, body, road, land and air. Any ride can produce this experience but the stretch of road from Newby Head to Dent village six miles later is the best I know, and makes it one of my favourite rides.
The railway pushes through the Dale’s head at about the height at which the many becks flowing from the surrounding fells form the River Dee. You’re properly in the Dale now, right next to the River.
The road falls over the next few miles, as it skirts Whernside’s northern flank. You accelerate with the downward gradient into the most thrilling stretch. Your speed together with the need to focus on the road ahead means awareness of this magical place isn’t cognitively or even aesthetically felt. You become blurred with trees, water, rock and road. You lose, escape, who you are. This is surely cycling’s greatest pleasure – your own displacement.
The River’s always different and often disappears beneath its limestone bed. In water’s absence you feel like the downward constant.
You can ride this stretch slowly, but you lose something.
From Cowgill lanes run either side the Dee. I cross a narrow, hump-backed stone bridge to ride the northern bank. At the junction here, the Coal Road north climbs out the valley past Dent Station, England’s highest, and over to Garsdale Head.
The lane and river stay tight together for another mile before separating slightly just short of Dent village. In the six miles since the Dale’s head the road has dropped three hundred metres.
The cobbles through Dent village form a stretch long enough to transport you briefly to Paris-Roubaix, yet are short enough to be pain-free.
Rather than ride the Dale’s length I sometimes climb out just beyond Dent, from Gawthrop over to Barbondale. But this time I want to cross the last bridge over the River Dee, just before it flows into first the Rawthey and then the Lune.
The lower Dale changes dramatically. It opens out and becomes more gentle. This change is geologically underpinned, the Yorkshire limestone of upper Dentdale giving way to Cumbrian rock. My riding style shifts according to these deep structures; I come off my drops and up to my hoods, my shoulder’s open, my gaze lifts; the intense riding of the upper Dale gives way to a broader, relaxed outlook.
The lane gets bigger. The Dee no longer sticks rigidly to its side but moves away to become a more ordinary river. The road starts to rise as well as fall and for the first time since the Dale’s head I get out of the saddle and feel the miles accumulating in my legs.
Just before the Dale’s end I drop to the Dee a final time, to cross to its south side via the slender bridge at Catholes. After twelve incredible miles I’m leaving Dentdale behind. I climb round Holme Fell and drop into the Lune Valley. From here it’s twenty-five fairly flat miles along the Lune back home to Lancaster.