Do you ever get the urge to spend a whole day by bike? For me it starts as a vague sensation but builds gradually into an itch that’s difficult to ignore. The older I get, the longer I’ve ridden, the more seriously I take it. It feels instinctive but I’m sure it’s not, it’s a habit I’ve developed – this occasional need for being all day on a bike. It’s not about training, almost the opposite – more like therapy; a form of meditation I suppose. The urge usually finds form in a specific ride idea through reading and chatting with others, and through a cycling imagination which – once the promise of a long ride takes hold – excels at the blend of map-based research and daydreaming required to make it happen.
So that’s how come I headed out early the other morning, for a day long ride.
I took my favourite route to Sedbergh, my tyres sticking to the sap through the littlest of the overhung lanes, bursting with foliage and grass running up them. But one of the best things about longer rides is how they move you beyond your ordinary territory: villages, lanes, buildings, views become steadily less familiar until, finally – the confidence of a map in your pocket – you reach fresh ground.
This transition towards unfamiliarity begins thirty miles in. It’s years since I last followed the long, lonely, lovely lane– an old Roman Road – north from Sedbergh along the Lune; taking the Howgills’ western side, it stays high but cuts sharp down and up across each beck as it falls from the fells.
But finally all routes big and small are funnelled through the Lune’s gorge near Tebay and run parallel north until at Low Borrowbridge mine is forced underneath the M6 and West Coast mainline to their other sides. It’s strange, being so close yet feeling so removed from people inside the trains, trucks and cars; we’re differentially speeding in the same direction, parallel, but I feel out of time. And invisible – I’m so hidden on these tiny lanes they must be oblivious to me; cycling silently present but outside the mainstream.
The Lune’s highest reaches lie east of Tebay but I keep north. Back home I’d seen on the map a lane running between the north- and south-bound carriageways of the M6 for a couple of miles, along the 250 metre contour, and of course I want to ride it – a central reservation slow lane crammed full of moorland birds, sheep and a solitary cyclist. I’m sure it often feels wild and windswept, but today it’s wonderful.
The other side of the watershed, the lanes from Shap to Pooley Bridge are bliss; smooth, fast and largely traffic-free. Pooley Bridge is the northernmost point of Ullswater, and also of my ride, and back in the planning, it’s this next stretch which had particularly fired my imagination – to pedal Ullswater’s length before climbing out its valley over Kirkstone Pass.
Ullswater’s shoreside road is busy with cars, throwing into stark relief the car-free lanes I’ve enjoyed so far. But by now I’m so far into my own zone they don’t much bother me, even the few which get too close; on longer meditative rides like this, by distracting my focus cars actually help restore it, becoming a resource to deepen rather than destroy my cycling experience. Besides, the views down and across Ullswater to Cumbria’s finest fells are stunning.
I ride through the village of Glenridding to the lake’s southern end, then past Patterdale, Hartshop and Brothers Water to the inn at Kirkstonefoot where, as its name suggests, Kirkstone Pass properly begins. Suddenly most of the cars are gone. Ahead the road climbs south into the distance and I move inextricably, inevitably into that priceless zone where the world gets temporarily reduced to just you slowly moving upwards through turning pedals. (The longer we’re ‘forced’ to inhabit this zone the more ‘classic’ is the climb.)
It’s the highest pass in the Lakes, but Kirkstone is not too difficult a climb, and it’s a satisfying one. Going the other way the views down over Ullswater and its surrounding fells are incredible; this way it’s the straight line taken between the cosiness of lake, village and pasture up to the high fells which makes it special.
And then the apex, the glorious bit of road at the end of a long climb which precedes the magic moment when up turns finally to down. There are many things I’ll never experience, but to think in a life lived differently this could have been one …
I crouch into the bike and hurtle down Troutbeck. The day’s hardest riding is done now, and from Staveley I’ll be homeward bound on familiar lanes, much like this morning’s largely devoid of cars, just made for bikes.
Do long rides like this much matter? For me a day in the saddle is simultaneously a day off, a day free from care. There’s a tendency to see cycling as hard work, but it’s equally possible to see it as taking it easy. I suppose some people laze on beaches or go to spas for their rejuvenation. Me, so long as I can remember, I’ve rejuvenated by being on a bike. Also, the longer I live and ride in north-west England, the more I seem to invite it to inform and shape my biography. The more places I ride and reach by bike, I suppose, the more personally meaningful they become. So being all day on a bike extends and deepens my sense of home.
In a sustainable world I suppose I think both these things matter.