Archive for the ‘CYCLING EXPERIENCES’ Category

Digging In

October 1, 2013

Derek riding Condor Bottoms Hill Climb, 2013

Autumn seems inevitably to bring a turn back to the local. Hill climbs somehow fit this return – this digging into our back-yards. The hill climb demands engagement with the ground – even as you pull up on the bars, it seems to be pulling you towards it; your focus becomes literally grounded as, eyes to the tarmac, you grunt your way slowly up, the world cut down to rasping breath and burning legs.

Hill climbs come as summer turns to autumn, and they mark the end of the road cycling calendar. If the world has opened out over the long, light, warmer months, it begins slowly now to close back down again. The grip of familiar territory upon our riding might have loosened during summer, but it’s re-established now. I enjoy this cosy sense of coming back, of coming home, to the local; the time between now and Christmas is about ‘getting in the miles’ on favourite roads between favourite places. For me hill climbs embody this return to the local; the hard pull up a short, steep incline my last grunt before, with winter in sight, I drop into gentler riding.

Bobby riding Condor Bottoms Hill Climb, 2013 - 2

This year something about uphill racing appealed to my son Bobby, who now he’s 12 can compete on the road. His Uncle Derek was also enthusiastic, so the three of us rode Lancaster Cycling Club’s hill climbs on consecutive Thursday evenings. The first, Condor Bottoms, climbs the Quernmore Valley’s short and steep west side. The second, Jubilee Towers, goes the other, longer way out the valley – up onto the Forest of Bowland. Bobby and Derek enjoyed these events so much, they wanted more. So the next week we all had another go up Jubilee Towers in Lancaster CC’s Open Hill Climb.

Dave riding Condor Bottoms Hill Climb, 2013

This event attracted three current National Hill Climb Champions – Eve Dixon, Lynn Hamel and Jack Pullar. They’re considerably quicker than us, but however fast or slow you are, there’s something universal in the hill climbing experience. For the Jubilee Towers climb, you start on a gradient so steep a concrete block is placed behind your rear wheel to stop you slipping back. Up until then, you’re in the world – getting ready, making small talk, warming up. But as your start time draws closer you become more serious, quieter, less outgoing. When your number’s called, you line up, and – as the final seconds are counted down – you compose your breathing.

Then away, you move into the climb, and enter a different world. Racing uphill quickly extinguishes all thought beyond the most basic instructions to yourself (‘out the saddle’, ‘up a gear’). The world closes down around your body, bike and breath; everything else is gone. This reduction to body, bike and breath is brutal and beautiful. To race uphill is very hard, but freedom comes from mind being put in place by body.

Within minutes the effort is done, and you re-emerge into a world you’ve barely left behind. It’s the same world, but you’re a bit different now. Physical recovery from so short a burst is rapid but at another level something’s changed, though exactly what I struggle to say. For me at least I think there’s a small sense of empowerment – it’s hard not to be just a little bit impressed with yourself after making such an effort. But also, a transaction has taken place: your emotional energies have been invested in the hill; the hill now matters more, both to you and also I think – because hill climbs are not merely personal experiences but also more importantly cultural events – to cycling.

Dave, Bobby and Derek after Jubilee Tower Hill Climb

Many thanks to Graham Atkinson for his permission to publish some of the super photos he took on Condor Bottoms in September, and also to Bobby’s Uncle Derek, for his of the three of us after the Jubilee Towers climb.

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Cycling Speed

August 1, 2013

I have multiple cycling speeds that I can’t rank ‘better’ and ‘worse’. 10 mph enables me to ride with kids and potter about town. 15 mph feels comfortable for longer rides out in the countryside. 20 mph I’m either going downhill or training. And then there’s 25 mph.

How fast?

25 mph is the speed of performance cycling. Road races typically average around this speed, and time trialling at 25 mph makes you half-decent – that’s something I set out to do this year, to ride 25 miles in under the hour, and 10 miles in under 24 minutes. The other night presented probably this season’s best chance of a sub-24 minute 10 mile ride; a warm, dry and calm evening – perfect conditions, on one of the fastest courses in the country, up and down the A590 near Levens in the south Lakes. My mate Jon also rode, similarly intent on breaking the 24 minute barrier. We make good training partners because we’re about the same level, which creates healthy competition between us and means we push each other to go faster.

Warming up

Time trialling emerged as a clandestine activity at the end of the nineteenth century in response to a ban on road-based bunch-racing. Darkly-dressed riders set off at regular intervals around dawn, to ‘test’ themselves over a secret course. Nowadays it’s almost the opposite – signs are erected around and along the course warning motorists an event is taking place, with riders encouraged to make themselves conspicuous through fitting a powerful rear light to their machine.

It might seem one of cycling’s conservative enclaves – most riders come by car (as a teenager my mates and I would cycle long distances to race, but these days Jon and I are unusual in cycling so far as twenty miles to Levens, and back, to take part) to pedal fast through intensely motorised space, using specific and costly bikes and equipment to enhance performance. Yet there’s politics amidst this personalised search for cycling speed.

Like the more overtly political Critical Mass, road time trialling claims increasingly motorised space for cycling, but instead of collectively claiming urban road space it (alone, I think) maintains cycling’s precarious presence (at one minute intervals) on big, busy and fast roads through the countryside. Only such fast cycling as this has hope of survival here; almost as if technological progress has enabled time trial speeds to keep up with broader accelerations in societal speed.

Perhaps less like Critical Mass, time trialling doesn’t seek to subvert the logic of these speeding corridors of automobility – the draughts produced by big vehicles passing close by help you ride faster! – so much as break the near monopoly which motorised movement imposes on them, by insisting cycling (and play, actually) is possible even here. If that seems a dangerous game, think how cycling’s almost lost its right to these roads – roads hugely important to cycling futures – and how without time trialling they’d become motorways in all but name. (What we really need on roads such as these is high-quality dedicated space for cycling, of whatever speed, along either side.)

Warming up at Levens

I set off one minute after Jon, by which time he’s disappeared into the distance. With five straight miles until the big Meathop roundabout, I concentrate on sustaining maximum power whilst keeping my cadence smooth (the graceful blend of immense effort and relaxed poise, neither of which I have, is what makes a great time triallist.) I know immediately I’m going fast, but more surprisingly, it seems a speed I can sustain.

Riding hard along a road which seems made for speeding cars, trucks, and vans with trailers is a strange experience. I have an abstract awareness of my flimsy and fragile exposure to other vehicles’ bulk and speed, yet my physical effort renders me almost oblivious to the specifics of their presence, unless they get uncomfortably close, in which case I use their proximity to boost my speed, accelerating as they pass; a rare bonus from less courteous driving.

Perched on the front of my saddle, tucked aerodynamically in, I gobble up the road. (I fit aero bars to my road bike ahead of a time trial, enabling a more ‘tucked’, streamlined position.) My fear as I approach the roundabout to return the other way is I’ve had a tail wind out and will hit a head wind back, but the second leg feels harder only because of the effort I’ve so far made. Although I refuse to believe it until my ride is over, it seems increasingly likely I’ll beat my target by a good margin.

Heading home

Jon does too, and we ride home happy, both knowing we’ve ridden 10 miles faster than we’ve ever done before. From a serious cycling perspective our times remain unimpressive (we finish 22nd and 23rd of 44 finishers), but they’ll do for us for now.

(Yes, Jon’s helmet is on backwards; it’s just the kind of thing he does, riding home from a time trial – during which he wears it the right way round.)

Heading home 2

At a personal or cultural level there’s nothing wrong with the search for speed; it’s part of a rich and varied cycling life. But I worry that, although cycling has variable speeds, it seems more generally to be speeding up, just when we need it to be slowing down. Cycling promotion seems often to want to speed cycling up, to make it better fit a fast society; the quicker we can make cycling, the more ‘competitive’ it becomes: inter-modal competitions regularly pit the bicycle against the car to prove cycling’s superiority through urban space; Copenhagen’s ‘Green Wave’ speeds cycling up by giving it priority through junctions; and high-profile British success in cycle sport continues cycling’s acceleration, displaying cycling as something best done fast, not slow. Speed becomes everything.

But making cycling fast makes it less democratic. Cycling is most popular in places where it’s slow, because slow cycling requires less effort. And isn’t life already too fast, and cycling better used to slow it down? A slower life is fairer, greener, and probably more enjoyable. There’s no single cycling speed; all speeds matter if cycling is to play the fullest role in society. But for most people most of the time cycling is best done slowly, and unless we create places where people can ride slowly the British cycling experience will continue to resemble a race amidst speeding traffic – an environment where a few might test themselves but most simply dare not pedal.

Kirkstone Pass

July 23, 2013

Kirkstone Foot

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.

Setting out

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.

Central reservation

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.

Ullswater

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.)

Kirkstone Pass 1

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.

Kirkstone Pass 2

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 …

When up turns to down

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.

Close to home

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.

Fun Cycling

July 3, 2013

Riding Grizedale's Red Route

My twelve-year-old son Bob wants cycling to be fun. He’d love life to be one long, uninterrupted stunt show. He craves the adrenaline rush. He’s fearless, constantly searching for, then rising to the next physical challenge, driven to test his limits. Watching him play sometimes scares me so much that – not wanting to stop his boyhood thriving – I look the other way. If his body senses a barrier, it seems compelled to surmount it. Pleasure is for him bodily, not cognitive. He loves fun fairs, laughs out loud at slapstick, and takes wicked delight in playing tricks on sister Flo.

The more fun cycling is, the more he wants to do it. But much of his cycling isn’t much fun, like we’ve taken the fun out of cycling. He rides because he must, as part of a carless family. With enough persuasion he’ll join a family leisure ride. But the riding he wants to do is riding he finds fun: he finds time trialling slightly fun, bunch racing more fun, track racing still more fun, and BMX and mountain biking greatest fun of all.

On the boardwalk

But there are different kinds of mountain biking, and my idea of mountain biking isn’t fun: I want mountain biking to contain those things I find enjoyable about road riding – lack of impediment, smoothness, duration, flow; Bob wants the opposite – obstacles, friction, interruption, difficulty. The rides we’ve done since getting mountain bikes for Christmas have usefully built our off-road skills and confidence, but they’ve been so far away from what makes Bob thrive I almost wince. Slowly trudging over barren, windswept moor does not for him constitute fun, even if the descents are exhilarating.

So giving Bob the MTB fun he craves felt overdue. This means trail centre riding, the more challenging the better. Last year we hired bikes at first Mabie and then Grizedale Forests to get a taste of this style of riding, but we stuck to easy green and blue routes which left Bob unfulfilled, frustrated. Clearly it was time to move up a level, to try a red route. This is Grizedale’s Red Route description:

This trail will take you through the forest by way of sinuous singletrack, offering adrenalising sections of singletrack descent and leg burning climbs. Be warned, there are plenty of challenging boardwalks in case you needed more to be scared of! This trail is suitable for mountain bikers only and requires a high level of skill and fitness.

It doesn’t mention fun, but Bob’s eyes shone as I read it out loud; this is just the kind of language which speaks to him. This sounds like cycling fun!

Falling off

Bam! Bam! Bam! Riding singletrack is like being in a video game where things keep coming at you – rocks, roots, branches, trees – and you must decide whether to dodge or tackle them (my instinct is to dodge; Bob’s – because it’s more fun – to tackle). One thing is quickly eclipsed by the next; there’s no time to dwell, let alone reflect. On the toughest stretches you can’t take your eye off the trail for a second.

Our riding speed is somewhere between the two speeds we regularly move through the countryside – more slowly when hill-walking, faster when road cycling – but the sensation is quite different from either. Riding these narrow, rocky trails requires more intense concentration and quicker reaction than hill-walking ever does, and a much more intimate, nuanced and responsive relationship between terrain, body and bike than road cycling. Because I’m timid I stay mainly upright, but Bob falls often – he shrugs off his tumbles and fears falling so little that he takes risks and learns fast, racing from feature to feature as I follow clumsily behind. I feel my comfort zone intensely, but it’s a concept he seems not to know.

Features are most fun, especially the sections of raised boardwalks and rock paths. These represent specific challenges, test your skill and nerve, and make crystal clear whether you succeed or fail. If Bob fails he tries again. Although I have a go these things feel to me like obstacles placed awkwardly in our path, blocking our ride; which is of course exactly what they are, but Bob interprets them ‘properly’ – to him they’re the whole point we’re here, and form the heart of our ride.

Smooth singletrack

Road riding gives me enormous pleasure but I’d be hard pressed to call it fun. Riding Grizedale’s Red Route helps me see my normal cycling in fresh light – as slightly detached and ponderous. Compared to mountain biking in Bob’s exuberant company, my road riding seems a bit serious; it makes me wonder whether I’m a grumpy old roadie who’s got no sense of cycling fun.

Is cycling fun? Is cycle commuting fun? Could it be? Should it be? Youthful sub-cultures of cycling seem a lot of fun – looking cool on a bike, bicycle polo, alleycats, generally larking around and having fun on bikes. Can we learn something from cycling that’s fun – from mountain biking, from these youthful sub-cultures, from the fun that people – perhaps especially kids – get from cycling?

Is it time to inject more fun into cycling?

Longest Day

June 24, 2013

Longest Day

We’ve had the year’s longest day. It seemed, during the long, hard winter, to be taking ages for spring to arrive. And now, so suddenly it seems, the summer solstice has been and gone and we’ve started the slow slip down the year’s other side. The best of days hopefully remain ahead, but it’s certainly time to make the most of them, to get out and ride. In the northern hemisphere this is the apex of the cycling year – opportunities for daylight cycling peak as the sun stays longest in our sky.

Flo spent the shortest night at a friend’s house. Bobby, after racing two evenings on the trot, craved rest. But I couldn’t let summer’s solstice pass without a ride, especially when a cloudy day made way for evening sun. Sue agreed, so together we rode nine miles out to The Redwell Inn for our tea. We’d raced the night before too, so rode gently; it was good to feel tiredness and tightness clearing from our legs.

Longest Day

We rode up river to the Crook o’Lune, and from there began the steady climb north-east towards the pub. This is a favourite stretch of road. The Lune’s valley drops away to one side and the Keer’s to the other as you climb, and as you rise there appears before you the most spectacular panorama of England’s highest ground: farthest away, to your left across Morecambe Bay, stretches a saw-like line of Cumbrian fells, which give way to the Howgill’s unmistakeable humps; then straight ahead, like you’re aiming at them, rise Yorkshire’s Dales, and finally – to your right – squat Lancashire’s moors. You feel you’ve got England’s finest scenery completely to yourself, and sometimes I think how to ride the road once would be worth the price of my bike; yet I’m lucky enough to ride it often.

Longest Day 3

Is there a finer drink than that earned from cycling, enjoyed outdoors as the sun slips slowly out the sky?

The Redwell Inn

By cycling we put ourselves into nature. We appreciate the countryside because we pedal through it. The roads belong to us because we assert our right to ride them. The land is ours because we ride across it. Cycling is potentially open to everyone, and so too the countryside. These roads and this land, my roads and my land, could be everyone’s road, everyone’s land.

From a car, speeding fast past through it, nature might seem not quite real, almost like a construct. Cars separate us from our world. But from a bike we know our place much better, that we’re fully of the world. There’s no screen to protect us, and we move quickly upon a skinny frame of metal attached to remarkably spinning wheels. We’re knocked by wind, beaten by rain, shone by sun. We snake along lanes, beneath trees, below hedges, under changing skies. When cycling there’s a permanent privilege to being so close that you become part of this precious living world. Of course it’s not all roses and birdsong: we’re sometimes hit by insects (poor things!), or offended by the sight and smell of creatures killed by cars; and love it or loathe it, we’re forced bodily to respond to what from a car remain vague and abstract topographies. Cycling we greet the world as it is, warts and all.

As a sociologist I seek to explore and understand the world, as an activist to critique and change it, but by bike I confront it up close and accept it as it is. Investigation and judgement take a back-seat – when cycling we dwell in pure, elemental place. And so by riding we come to appreciate the world more fully. Riding is raw, truthful and above all, real.

Heading home

We returned to Lancaster the way we’d come, though it felt different now – not only were we going the other way, but the sun had dipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped. The longest day was drawing to a close, and the twilight wove midsummer magic, casting us under its spell.

One year it’d be good to ride continuously from sunrise to sundown on the longest day, or another to ride through the shortest night. They’re adventures for the future, to add to the reassuringly long – more than a good life-time’s long – rides-still-to-do list.

Le Terrier

June 9, 2013

Stop for tea at Slaidburn YHA

Our local sportive enjoyed perfect cycling weather last Sunday – a fine, dry, but not too warm day was forecast, and is exactly what we got. I rode with Derek, my brother-in-law. We were amongst the first riders to set off from Lancaster Brewery, at 7:30. We’d got there in time to register, grab a coffee, and chat to Scott and Jamie from local bike shop, The Edge Cycleworks, who were on hand to help with last-minute mechanical niggles.

Le Terrier start at Lancaster Brewery

We rode the longest of three routes, 105 miles with 3,500 metres of ascent. The climbing starts straight away, with the long pull up Jubilee Tower. From there it’s through the Trough of Bowland to Dunsop Bridge, south along the River Hodder, and over Longridge Fell up Jeffrey Hill and down Birdy Brow.

Starting a long ride early means you break its back before you’re fully awake to the magnitude of your undertaking. There’s still trepidation at what lies ahead but, especially if you pedal within yourself and things go smoothly, also a gradual relaxing into the joys of the ride. Then thirty or forty miles in, if you’re still feeling fresh, success seems more achievable. That’s how I felt, anyway, as we rode through Waddington and started the long climb north over Newton Fell to Slaidburn.

A long day in the saddle sees people, places and events quickly come and go in a steadily accumulating blur, so the ride you’re producing becomes hazy even within the process of producing it: incidents occur but are quickly left behind; conversations come and go; sights, sounds, smells and bodily sensations arise and then dissolve … Everything evaporates as it condenses, leaving ‘just’ the ride. So all you’re doing, really, finally, is riding. This is a big part of cycling’s magic, and why sometimes – not always! – long rides seem less hard work than I’d expect.

Climbing Bowland Knotts

We stopped at Slaidburn, over a third of the ride done, for welcome refreshment. From there the ride’s middle third saw us loop round Bowland’s eastern half. We rode through Gisburn Forest up to Bowland Knotts. The panorama there of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks – Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside – is magnificent, and one which – if you lift your gaze – you continue to enjoy as you hurtle down the next few miles.

At Keasden we turned east towards Settle, and then onto little gated lanes via Wham and Long Gill to Tosside. For all the riding I do, this stretch was new to me.

From Tosside we seemed to spend five miles tumbling south off Bowland only to turn near Holden and work our way back up again, to Slaidburn for a second time. My body was tiring now – neither conversation, nor wonder at the ride, nor even turning of the pedals came so easily as they’d done thus far.

Climbing again!

From Slaidburn we made our second south-north traverse of Bowland, this time over the Cross of Greet and down into Wray.

Joining a group

The last thirteen miles are brutal. We talked little now, just the occasional grunt; you need to turn inward, draw on hidden resources. This gruelling finale is along narrow, rough, steep and gated lanes, little more than farm-tracks really. Riding up Roeburndale from Wray you feel like you’re heading into a place with no other way out, yet there is – one which seems to inflict every crease of Bowland’s north-west corner upon you. At points you’re rendered practically stationary, as though the hills are hitting you – they have a power and motion which by now, 90 miles in your legs, you lack. It’s hard to believe that continuing to turn your pedals, however slowly, you’ll eventually see land drop away and sky once more colonise your horizon – with Lancaster, Morecambe Bay, the Fylde, the Lakes, and the Irish Sea all coming finally into view.

Then you’re almost home.

Into the last, brutal miles

Back where we started, what seemed so long ago, exhausted and content.

Le Terrier is a staggeringly good ride. It’s a stunning introduction to the area for those who’ve not been here. The long course crosses Bowland’s bulk three times (via the Trough, Bowland Knotts, and the Cross of Greet respectively) and goes too round its eastern flank; without going off-road, that’s as comprehensive as you can get. There are no major roads, no traffic lights, just a few villages, and mile after mile of quiet and scenic lanes. And for locals it stitches together into one very satisfying and coherent whole many roads on which you might regularly ride.

Without fear of being biased at all, I can say the event was superbly organised. The route was fantastically well sign-posted, and as if by magic food stops invariably arrived each time I was just beginning to fancy a flapjack! A huge thank you to all who made it happen – I’d name names but fear missing out any of the many involved. (I feel slightly guilty about riding rather than helping with the event, but figure that if some Lancaster CC members at least don’t ride it, word might get round that we’ve devised a route so hard the locals won’t do it!)

But there are two equally splendid shorter rides too; a middle distance of 66 miles, and a shorter one of 47. Sue and Bobby rode the latter, with a posse of other parents and children from our local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set.

Cog Set at the Cross o'Greet

The Cog Set Crew

Re-enchantment

June 7, 2013

Carlessness sculpts the contours of Sue, Bobby, Flo and my everyday lives, and our cycling fills in much of the detail. I don’t want to hold us up as a model, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless to reflect on what difference to our lives a car-free and often bicycle-based mobility pattern makes. After all, this blog is rooted in a belief in the bicycle’s capacity to re-make the world in fair and sustainable ways, one revolution at a time.

Flo & Sue

We spent last week in Sedbergh, a small town nestled in the Howgill Hills mid-way between the Cumbrian Lakes and Yorkshire Dales. It sits almost as close to the River Lune as does our home in Lancaster, thirty miles downstream, so that here and there feel connected. Some Sedbergh residents travel to work in Lancaster, and many of Sedbergh’s children were born in Lancaster’s hospital. I sometimes pass through it on my longer rides, but Bobby had been there only once before and Flo never at all. The nearest train station is ten hilly miles away at Oxenholme, and the bus service as poor as rural districts everywhere. So as a family it’s felt a place beyond reach.

Yet it’s a lovely place in a splendid setting. The surrounding countryside is threaded with some perfect cycling lanes and laced with footpaths I’ve been itching to tread. And now they’re older thirty miles, even hilly ones, is a distance Bobby and Flo can manage relatively comfortably. So for half-term holiday we decided to ride to Sedbergh and make it our base for the week. That way two good bike rides would sandwich six days spent getting to know the area on foot as well as by bike.

Dropping down to Sedbergh

As lovers of this corner of the world we often holiday locally, but this would be the first time we’d made the whole journey from home each on our own bike. We stuck as closely as we could to the Lune’s left bank. This is a hillier way of reaching Kirkby Lonsdale, a little over half-way to Sedbergh, but one less disturbed by cars; I wanted our trip to be carefree, not stressful.

Without my really having noticed both Bobby and Flo have become stronger, better riders. Bobby danced ahead with every rise, making them look ridiculously easy as Sue and I laboured behind. And for the first time Flo took hills in her stride, accepting them for what they are – an inevitable, even agreeable, part of any longer ride across beautiful ground.

Cycling amidst the cow parsley

We stopped for cakes and ice-creams in Kirkby Lonsdale, enjoying them in glorious sunshine on a bench in the churchyard. Then we aimed straight north, still on the Lune’s left-side until crossing it just short of Sedbergh. We parked our bikes by the bridge and dropped down to play by the river. Of course it’s very different here to the one we know well in Lancaster, almost at its mouth. At this higher point it cuts down hard through the hills and feels more a part of them – their rock, soil and trees.

Bobby in the River Lune

From our Sedbergh base we walked fresh paths and enjoyed as a family views from hills we can see but not easily reach from home. And we rode lanes which for a long while I’ve wanted to show the kids. The back road between Sedbergh and Dent is particularly special – it’s gated, carries almost no traffic, and stays close to the river, which we played alongside and probed as we went. Perhaps one day we’ll ride such places together as a day trip from Lancaster.

Whatever, I felt happy finally to introduce Bobby and Flo to this special part of the world, and this part of my cycling world. They were of course wonderfully blasé about it all, but I’m fairly sure that the magic of riding and walking such places casts its spell, if in ways which for now remain mysterious to us all.

Our backyard is beautiful, but easy to miss if we’re off elsewhere. I love exploring distant places, but more local exploring deepens and extends the boundaries of our ordinary lives. Last week not just our private explorations as a family, but also our public encounters with people in and around Sedbergh – farmers, shopkeepers, other walkers and cyclists, the neighbours of the cottage where we stayed – deepened our understandings of, and I think our bonds with, this part of the world, making it more part of our own world. In a small way people’s stories became our stories, their land our land. This seems right – after all, we share a territory and our lives are connected by a river in perpetual flow.

I thank carlessness and cycling for many things, but one of their greatest gifts is the incentive they give to staying local, and coming to know that local too. So I guess my wider point here is how life with bikes instead of cars might bring us all closer to home and, without wishing to get too romantic about it, enable a sorely needed re-enchantment of that home.

On Arant Haw, the Howgills

Blossom

May 15, 2013

Blossom

It’s only once it starts waking up again that I realise quite how asleep the world has been; and although it’s not got much warmer, these last couple of weeks it’s really come alive. Yesterday the blossom, which is late this year, was particularly fine. The verges have sprung to life too, and are full of flowers.

You don’t need to go for a ride in the countryside to notice how everything’s growing so fast, and how much colour is emerging. One of the great things about blossom especially is it tends to follow where people live, so it’s all around us, even in a relatively treeless town such as Lancaster. But to ride out and get the full sensory assault of this flourishing flora is a great pleasure of cycling at this time of year.

Yesterday I kept mainly to little lanes on a northerly loop from Lancaster. I rode over Hutton Roof and round Farleton Fell to Natland, just short of Kendal, then west to Brigsteer and round Whitbarrow, on to Levens, and back home via the Yealands and Kellets. This is a more peopled, pastoral route than many of my favourites – it doesn’t roam over moors and fells but moves between hamlets comprising stone farmhouses surrounded by trees. But it makes a more colourful ride – aware it won’t be long before the blossom’s blown away and the countryside goes completely green, I wanted to enjoy it whilst it lasts.

For mid-May it wasn’t warm; I was stung by a storm of hail stones as I climbed out the Kent Valley. But warmer than it was a month or so ago, the birds remain busy, and it’s beginning to smell properly of spring now; especially through the woodlands the air’s heavy with the scent of wild garlic.

Blossom tree at Yealand

Winster Valley

Under Whitbarrow

Towards Crosthwaite

Witherslack Woods

Road cycling is often seen as involving hard effort, long miles and tough climbs. Professional cycle sport and increasingly popular styles of riding such as sportives tend probably to perpetuate such an image. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons rural road cycling is dominated by men? (I’ve not seen studies on this but my own experience supports other anecdotal evidence – when riding outside the city, I’ll maybe see one woman for every ten men.) But road riding can be, should be, is (has always been?) so much more than this; and yesterday– to offer a little example – I was reminded of how it lets you move through (indeed become part of) a multi-sensory floral kaleidoscope.

As with cycling in general, for road cycling to become more popular (and there are good reasons it should) we need to watch for it getting constructed in one way to the exclusion of others. So let’s keep sight (and smell!) of road cycling’s different meanings. Indeed, let’s reflect on, discuss and promote them.

And whilst all this proliferating vegetation can be experienced via other modes, there’s no better way – I’d aver – than by bike.

Blossom

Bluebell woods

Verge 1

Verge 2

Heading home

Dentdale

May 1, 2013

Into Dentdale

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.

Little sense here of what's to come

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.

Into the valley

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.

River Dee

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.

Signpost in Dentdale

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.

Bridge over the River Dee

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.

Dent cobbles

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.

Leaving Dentdale

Longer Days

April 22, 2013

Setting sun

The seasons matter to cycling. And cycling makes the seasons matter.

In the north-west of England we’ve finally emerged from the harshest Winter. The days are growing longer and warmer. The deep cold has gone and life is returning to the land.

Struck by a cold, I was off the bike for a week but, with my strength coming back, each of the past few days I’ve ridden out of town for a short, gentle ride towards the end of day. It’s a lovely way to spend an evening, enjoying the quiet lanes and lengthening shadows as the sun falls over Morecambe Bay.

Long shadow

Last night I left the house at 7:30 to do a little loop into the Forest of Bowland and up to Jubilee Tower. Lambs bounced round the fields, hares sprinted off at my approach, and birds busily prepared themselves for the coming night. Occasionally a farmer’s tractor or quad-bike trundled somewhere in the distance, but the lanes were empty of cars. I love the feeling of having all this countryside, all this space, virtually to myself; I sink into it, become blurred, am content.

Forest of Bowland

I hurtled back down to the quiet Sunday night city, passing the Town Hall clock as it chimed a-quarter-to-nine, some light left still in the sky. For the next two months each evening will grow a little longer, and hopefully warmer too. Isn’t this the very best time to be on a bike, the longest days and best weather still ahead? Our bodies turn with our pedals towards the optimism Spring surely brings.

Winter’s cold and dark tempts the closing of curtains and indoor retreat. Spring seduces us back to the world outside. The scope for cycling becomes so much greater. The traditional pro-cycling calendar reflects this – we’ve had the early season Classics and can now anticipate the Summer’s Grand Tours. Locally too Winter’s dormancy has retreated and the cycle racing season begun, the weeks now crowded with events.

Winter cycling is great, but includes a certain amount of ‘getting through’. Winter cycling matters, but there always lurks an orientation to brighter, better days ahead. Many people cycle only once it gets warmer, but surely no one cycles just in Winter.

We know how seasonal cycling is, how warm weather triggers the inclination to cycle. The bike shops get busy, new people on new or refurbished bikes are out and about. Of course we need to create conditions which compel people to cycle all year round, but in the absence of bolder, broader institutional support for ordinary cycling it’s understandable that most people’s interest in riding changes with the weather.

We’re ‘a cycling family’, but cycling is seasonal for us too. On Saturday morning I went with Bobby and Flo to our brilliant local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set, where weekly sessions have resumed. Both complained bitterly at being made to go; I was ‘the baddie’ breaking their winter hibernations in which lazy stasis inspired by staring at screens has taken centre-stage. But the sunshine, sociability, fresh air and exercise boosted their energies, and they came away bubbling with enthusiasm, as though participating had sprung Spring within their little souls.

Springtime cycling is a mechanism for lifting our spirits and horizons, taking us to other, farther, more interesting places.

Of course for those of us who ride year round Spring feels good partly because of the Winter that came before, as well as the Summer that lies ahead. Contrasts are everything: even the places through which we most regularly ride change dramatically; and as the temperatures rise and the days lengthen cycling becomes less shackled by some Winter essentials: lights, layers, gloves and hats; things can gradually be discarded. There’s a ‘freeing-up’ both of cycling and our selves.

My little ride last night wasn’t cold, but we’ve yet to experience a truly warm evening this year. At long last, though, it’s feeling possible; the dreamy, delicious prospect of the after-dinner short-sleeve and shorts ride through warm and windless air has moved one step closer.

Springtime evening sunshine