There are parts of England, never mind Britain, where it’s possible to do a long day’s ride almost entirely on A and B roads (for those who live elsewhere, that’s big roads) yet rarely see a truck or car (though tractors, quad bikes and post vans are a bit more common).
I’d been invited to the Department for Transport’s Cycle Stakeholder Forum which took place on Monday in London. Although on paper I’m a ‘member’ of this Forum, I’ve yet to attend a meeting. Frankly, the continuing ‘taking cycling seriously’ waffle, whilst so little’s being done to make cycling easy, makes me nauseous, and whilst I know it’s not a particularly rational political strategy (and even ‘immature’), I increasingly want nothing to do with it. To be honest I’m still not sure whether ‘men (and it is mainly men) in suits (pretending to) take cycling seriously’ is a good thing: it’s probably an inevitable and necessary stage in the process of making cycling mainstream, something I’ve long hoped to see; but – and this is where the nausea comes in – I hate seeing cycling instrumentalised, reduced and bureaucratised, all so it makes sense within worlds which – at least for me – are antithetical to what cycling is and should be.
So rather than go to London I promised myself a long ride instead. Then I’d save the £90 train fare, and likely spend and end the day energised and elated, rather than dejected and deflated. Some days all I want to do, really, is sit on the bike and ride; spend the day thoughtlessly pedalling. On those days I tend to devise a relatively flat route along relatively big roads (and I almost always ride anti-clockwise, a habit I developed long ago – I think through riding with people who saw right turns as making rides unnecessarily complicated).
With so much talk of ‘Getting Britain Cycling’, it’s odd that I can leave home at 9 am on a Monday morning, ride 85 miles along big roads remarkably free of motorised traffic and passing through some of England’s finest countryside, yet barely see another person on a bicycle. We might be getting more serious about more effectively inserting cycling into the ‘straight’ world, but what I’d like to see is the ‘straight’ world get a bit less, well, ‘straight’ through its embrace of cycling, so that the Monday-Friday, 9-5 grind starts to lose its allure. ‘Yes’, cycling could make us ‘more efficient workers’ (one of the few reasons many politicians could probably be persuaded to like it), but really, who wants to be a more efficient worker?! Instead, sell the car, get a bike, and use the money saved to drop hours spent working and go cycling instead! That way lies more health benefits than ‘merely’ pedalling the commute could ever bring; and a tangible sense of freedom to boot.
Rides such as this one, involving big loops north-east of Lancaster, don’t feel they’ve quite started until I reach Ingleton, 18 miles from home. I think that’s because only then do I reach roads that are wide, open and quiet; until then bigger roads are busy, while quieter ones are lanes that tend to feel intimate, not expansive. I love riding through the gentle mid-morning ‘bustle’ of Ingleton village (I often pop my first banana or energy bar on my way through), because then the ‘niggly bit’ is over and the long, straight roads of the western Dales begin. The B6255 road to Hawes climbs steeply at first before flattening as it strikes a course north-east, Whernside to one side, Ingleborough the other. Riding this road I always feel a deep privilege to being on a bike.
The valley narrows towards Chapel-le-Dale and the exposed limestone creeps closer, then Ribblehead Viaduct strikes its clear, fine line across the moor ahead. You swoop fast down beneath it and then, immediately after the Horton turn which follows the Settle-Carlisle south, there’s a lovely curve to the road which lets you keep your speed ahead of the next rise, as you pass the motorists huddled in their cars.
From the pass at Newby Head it’s downhill almost all the way to Hawes. The road is wide and its gradient gradual, so you can hold a good speed, with on Monday a strong head wind saving me the effort of braking.
From Hawes the wind is mostly at my back, and I plain sail west up valley to the Moorcock Inn, just shy of the Wensleydale/Garsdale watershed, turning north there down a valley for which, if I’ve not ridden it in more than a month or two, I develop serious cravings – Mallerstang.
Why do I love Mallerstang? The gradients are gentle (you can see why the Settle-Carlisle railway took this valley), and – in this direction – after a short climb you’ve a long downhill that’s fast and fluid. The surrounding fells (Wild Boar is perhaps best known) are little visited, while their long edges and gentle slopes form a perfect fit with road cycling. And though you’re moving fast across smooth tarmac, you feel here that you’ve left the world behind.
I usually stay along this Eden Valley into Kirkby Stephen because, 50 miles from home, I need food; but today – progress slowed by the wind – I’ve already eaten in Hawes. So at Pendragon Castle a few miles short of Kirkby I take the little lane west (the railway tunnelled below) to the next empty A road, the 683. A super road, going south it aims straight at the Howgills before hugging tight their eastern flank. (You re-enter the Yorkshire Dales National Park where Cautley Spout tumbles from the fells behind The Cross Keys Temperance Inn.) Like Mallerstang, heading this way the gradient’s in your favour and it’s another straight, fast run all the way to Sedbergh. Through the town I keep to the A683 along the Lune’s east side to Kirkby Lonsdale, switching there via Devil’s Bridge to the Lune’s west side for the last stretch, along the B6254, for home.
Cycling wide open roads lifts not just my spirits but also my horizons. It makes me ambitious for cycling in ways not encouraged by the Department for Transport, ambitious not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. ‘Yes’ to more bums on saddles, but I want cycling to lead those bums – both individually and collectively – towards better things. Why ‘Get Britain Cycling’? To get its bodies and its cities primed for the next wave of neo-liberal, corporate, consumer capitalist incursions, aimed at making Britain more economically ‘efficient’ and profitable? Not in my name, thanks. I want Britain to ‘Get Cycling’ so more people might ride their bike to ride their bike and take ‘a cycling perspective’, one that gets them closer to home, closer to themselves, closer to a world in which no one need wear a suit.