The climb of Butter Tubs will be better known once the first stage of next year’s Tour de France passes over it. How hard the riders find it will depend a lot on the wind. Yesterday, damp and blustery with the wind at my back, I barely noticed it, the gradient never so steep as to force deep effort. But at over 500 metres, conditions towards the top can be dreadful; I’ve been brought almost to a standstill by head winds here, and felt my bike being blown beneath me by side winds.
The Butter Tubs themselves lie just over the pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale; this is limestone country and the Tubs are deep potholes set close to the road, used – legend has it – for keeping butter cool.
From the little market town of Hawes in Wensleydale you can see the Butter Tubs road climbing north over the moor; disconcertingly, the road seems to be clinging to the fellside for dear life. Out of Hawes and across the River Ure, you wind up past the hamlet of Simonstone. Below you upland rain pummels down through Hardraw Force, England’s highest unbroken waterfall. There’s a short, steep section (where the biggest crowds, including me and my family, will gather on the first Saturday of next July) before the road relaxes its way across higher ground.
And this is a road, not a lane. I guess it was chosen partly because it stays so wide as it goes so high. Coming half-way through the stage, it’s unlikely to make much impact on the race – chances are a break (hopefully including a Brit, even a local, or two) will have formed, and the peloton will mind the gap before reeling it back for a bunch sprint to the Harrogate finish.
But what impact might the Tour’s passing through this part of the world have on cycling more generally? I love cycling’s continuing high profile. I try to keep it in perspective – for most people cycling continues to be mainly irrelevant – but after a lifetime spent loving something strange I’m starting to feel a bit more normal! Still, imagining we’re in the midst of ‘a cycling revolution’ is wishful thinking and for the Tour de France to have local impact on everyday life in the Yorkshire Dales – and so contribute to a nascent trend of ‘Britain embracing the bicycle’ – requires work. Revolutions never happen; they’re made.
Can almost 200 of the world’s strongest male cyclists passing over Butter Tubs help get Yorkshire cycling? Can the spectacle be turned to participation? And the participation not just of cycling enthusiasts drawn to Yorkshire’s hills and dales, however good that might be for the tourist economy, but also of local people going about their daily business? Put differently, can carbon-heavy cycling – for Le Tour is certainly that – be converted to carbon-neutral cycling? Because only cycling which replaces rather than adds to carbon-based travel will help move us towards sustainability; and no matter how many good things bringing Le Tour here might achieve, that’s – surely – what matters most.
From Butter Tubs the road drops into Swaledale; it’s steep with some tight corners, but remains wide and is surprisingly well surfaced (although it’ll probably need re-doing after another Yorkshire winter); unless it’s particularly wet and windy, the Tour carnival will hurtle down without a second thought.
You can’t talk about Yorkshire cycling without mentioning hills, wind and rain. Cosy in a car, you’re immune to all three, but on a bicycle it’s a different story. So is cycling here only for the fit and adventurous riding just for fun, never for ‘ordinary people’ doing ‘ordinary stuff’? Will Le Tour’s legacy be more ‘outsiders’ coming to ride in Yorkshire, while locals stay stuck fast in their cars?
Hay barns dotted prettily across its floor, upper Swaledale is gorgeous. Here I turn left – my route takes me to the top of the valley and the Cumbrian border on the wild and windswept Birkdale Common, but all the riders and the fuss will turn the other way, through Muker and Reeth, before crossing back to Wensleydale down at Leyburn.
Yorkshire is talking of Le Tour. For people here there’s no escape. So what to make of it? In a place like Hawes cars are everywhere, and the people you occasionally see on bikes look much like me. The car enables life here to continue to be lived as it’s come – if only in quite recent times – to be lived; everyday life without a car has quickly become unthinkable. Is, then, re-thinking the bicycle as able to do some of the work which the car currently does in places such as this too big a challenge? If so, would that be a failure of cycling, or of our imaginations?
Yorkshire’s landscapes and people will next year add colour and character to the world’s biggest bike race. But how will the race leave Yorkshire? Essentially unchanged beyond a momentary tourist boom and a contribution to re-making the region as a cycling destination? Or can it leave a longer-lasting and more locally-relevant legacy, developing the region not just as a destination for, but also an origin of, cycling?
We’re seeing some money to get people living in cities cycling, and also visitors to national parks. For sure we need new thinking and ideas to help make it happen, but we could also now do with some money to help people who actually live and work in places like Yorkshire’s Dales cycle too. The 2014 Tour won’t by itself make much difference; but we can make it make a difference. So I suggest we find ways to use the Tour’s Yorkshire passing as an impetus to develop a rural cycling which doesn’t disappear once the race is gone, but survives locally and contributes to sustainability.