Posts Tagged ‘Lancaster Cycling Club’

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.

Cycling’s Helpers

July 16, 2013

Attending to cycling

It’s tempting to treat events as somehow ‘natural’ – they just happen and we simply show up, to watch or participate. But that’s the easy bit, consumption. What about production? Because events never just happen, they’re made to happen, they’re produced. This includes cycling events – and if you want more cycling you might sooner or later want to get involved. At this time of year cycling events abound even in a small place like Lancaster. There’s something happening (or rather, being made to happen!) most evenings, and at weekends too.

Helping hand

For example, every Thursday from early April until late August Lancaster Cycling Club organises an evening time trial at Salt Ayre cycle track. I participate regularly, and help out occasionally. A gorgeous warm and sunny evening, 68 people rode last week’s event: 15 (mainly younger children) at two miles; 19 (children and adults) at six miles; and 34 (mainly adults) at ten miles. Between them those 68 rides reflect enormous work on the part of the riders, in training beforehand and the race itself. But those 68 rides also require huge work from others.

Signing on

Much of that work takes place elsewhere. Cycling’s unsung heroes, its hidden helpers, are busy all year; meeting, planning and preparing even in the darkest depths of winter. But it’s likely these same people who on a Thursday evening during the racing season are down at the track before the first riders arrive, still there after the last riders have gone, and – when back at home the tidying up and paperwork are finally done – back again next week to do it all again. For its helpers, cycling is often less about riding than about making the riding of others happen. People often say they’re ‘giving something back’ to cycling, but these people don’t just ‘give something back’, they keep cycling going. And their lives are shaped by the help they give cycling.

Pushing off

Much work is out of sight, but on any evening at the track there’s plenty still to do: someone must put signs around the track to let other people (especially dog-walkers) know cycle racing is taking place; the track might need sweeping, dog mess clearing up; there are tables and chairs to get out, and – if it looks like rain – gazebos to erect. At the signing-on desk people help riders register, collect race fees, and issue numbers. At the start line, riders are pushed off at the appropriate time (one minute intervals). Near the finish line someone spots and shouts numbers to the time-keepers, who monitor riders’ progress (each lap is 0.8 miles, so 10 mile riders must complete 12.5 laps) and ensure everyone gets their finishing time. Back on the other side of the track, someone sorts refreshments – drinks and biscuits that keep people hanging around and turn the event into an important social as well as sporting occasion.

Salt Ayre time-keepers

When the racing’s over and the riders gone, everything’s quietly and carefully tidied away again, and cycling’s helpers head home to do the paperwork, process and distribute the results, clean kit, check equipment, and circulate details of the next event.

Lancaster's time-keeping crew

That’s Thursday, time trial night. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings see bunch racing, which requires more helpers – including commissaires, marshals, and gear checkers. Racing also takes place at weekends. Then there are training sessions on Saturday mornings, and other evenings. And this is just what happens in one small place, Salt Ayre. But if there weren’t people prepared to organise all this, it simply wouldn’t happen. And a similar story is of course repeated, with local variation, elsewhere. So thanks to cycling’s helpers everywhere.

Refreshments

It’s easy to become a cycling helper. Besides the key organisers, every event requires a bunch of people simply willing to lend a hand – stand with a flag, note down numbers, make some cakes or pour the tea. ‘Doing a turn’ is a basic ethic of how we ride, and applies off the bike too. Because we’re good at taking turns cycling’s calendar is crowded with events. If we’re able, we willingly do our bit. And this is the way to make a more bike-friendly world – if cycling matters to us, by working together, contributing to events, we can help make it matter more to others. Cycling’s profile and popularity will rise as more people commit to doing this kind of work; it would fall were it not for the countless people who already devote a chunk of their lives to help cycling.

Cycling doesn’t just happen; it’s always being made to happen – by people, people like you and me. There are countless ways to help cycling. The cycling world is full of clubs and associations which, between them, contribute to cycling culture and keep cycling going. I’ve focussed here on cycle sport but we can choose any cycling focus. The point is that nothing ‘just happens’; the Berlin Wall didn’t fall by itself, South African apartheid didn’t end by itself; and a cycling-friendly world will not come about by itself – it will be made by people such as those you see here, people like you and me.

Hard to see

This post is dedicated to Bob Muir, who is on the far right of the above photo – it is he who, more than anyone, makes Thursday nights at Salt Ayre so reliably and so successfully happen. Thank you Bob!

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

Sportive riding for kids

June 8, 2011

I made a blunder on the domestic front when I agreed to the dates for the Building Cycling Cultures event, which took place in Leicester at the weekend (I’ll write about it later this week): I had to disappear down south on Saturday, Bobby’s 10th birthday, and completely missed our local sportive, run by our cycling club (Lancaster CC), which took place on Sunday.

Le Terrier is a wonderful event, with this year a choice of three distances through our local countryside around the Forest of Bowland. Before I mucked it up, we’d discussed riding the shortest route as a family, with Flo and me on the tandem. (Though I’d also have loved to try the new and tough looking 102 mile route with some of my cycling mates.)

But with me down south, Sue and Bobby decided they’d try the 43 mile route anyway, especially when Bobby’s classmate Ffion and her Dad Rick also opted to give it a go. Sue’s written a short report of the day, which I’ve copied below.

“Some people think I’m bonkers,

But I just think I’m free…”

This is the lyric which Rick kept singing as we began the Le Terrier short route on Sunday. A bit annoying, but he had a point. There’s nowt bonkers about going on a 45 mile bike ride, even if it is a bit cold and rainy, but taking two children with us? It felt a potentially daft thing to do. It’s true that Bobby (ten years and one day old) had cycled to Slaidburn last year, but he then stayed the night before coming back to Lancaster. Meanwhile his classmate Ffion (who’s just still 9) has been riding a 6 mile time trial regularly, but had never ridden up a steep hill. Could they do it, could they enjoy it, or might we have a moanfest of a day, have to call for a motorised rescue, and put them off cycling for ever?

The first hill, Jubilee Tower, is a bit of a workout – indeed, a climb I used to be scared of. The kids hit their bottom gears, danced on their pedals, but then Ffion got off and walked. I think she had exhausted herself by being undergeared! She also felt sick from the sight of so much fresh road kill … all those baby rabbits hoppity hopping to their deaths. Luckily she listened to her dad’s advice, and soon learned how to climb without needing to stop, and to look away from the tarmac carnage.

As we continued to the Trough of Bowland the rain got harder, so at Dunsop Bridge we treated our cold toes and fingers to the warmth of the café. Bobby and Ffion could probably have made their hot chocolates and flapjacks last until tea time, but we eventually got them back out into the rain with the promise of more treats at the Slaidburn stop. There the small kitchen was bustling with friendly cyclists in thin or non-existent rain coats having the same conversation: “this wasn’t forecast” and “I’ve not come prepared for this weather!” We indulged in the feast of unlimited sandwiches, malt loaf, cake, flapjacks and (most excitingly for the children) crisps and jelly babies.

Perhaps it was the quantity of food he’d just eaten which led Bob to have an emotional wobble on a climb soon after: “I’m not doing this next year”, “I’m going to be sick!” and “I can’t do it”. Or perhaps it was my honest reply to his question “are we half way there yet?” We weren’t, quite, but he recovered. The clouds cleared and the climb up to the Cross o’Greet was glorious.

Cruising down from the Cross was fabulous. Bob was absolutely beaming with the thrill and exhilaration of it, and asked if we could ride back up to do it again. Request denied. On we went, with Rick delighted to discover such beautiful lanes to ride on, after living in Lancaster for more than 20 years. Faster riders kept speeding past us, but we rolled on and down to Wray, and then hunkered down to the busier roads which complete the short course. As he had promised in the morning, Bob sprinted off as soon as we entered Williamson’s Park, closely followed by Ffion.

All in all it took us almost seven hours, with four and a half hours of riding – around one minute off the saddle for every two minutes on it! I think Rick and I were probably prouder of our offspring than they were of themselves. Both asked the same question on going to bed: “can I do the 67 mile route next year?”

Congratulations Bobby and Ffion – you’re both super stars! And well done Sue and Rick – if you like, you two can do the big one next year and the kids can coax me around one of the shorter options! And big thanks to the many people involved in making the event such a great success – I promise not to miss 2012’s Le Terrier!

Family time trialling

May 23, 2011

The Thursday evening time trial at Salt Ayre is becoming a regular activity for our household this year.We went again last week.

It’s a wonderful occasion – people gradually arrive and assemble on the grass close to the starting line. For those who plan to ride, there’s the pleasant anticipation of giving your all, and perhaps even (on a windless night) beating your own personal best (PB). But this is a sociable place too – it gives us a chance to natter with old friends, as well as gently to intermingle, and gradually perhaps to develop ease and familiarity with a whole new set of friendly faces. (We’re always – with varying degrees of comfort – easing ourselves into and out of identities – and how lovely it is to see young people, especially, developing bike-based identities.) It really is a most agreeable scene.

A lot goes on to make these events happen, of course. They depend on a dedicated band of wonderful volunteers from Salt Ayre Cog Set and Lancaster Cycling Club, who must arrive early to set everything up and await the riders’ arrival.

Some people set up and staff the desk where riders sign in, pay for their ride (£2.50 for adults, £1 for children), and collect their number (all riders now have a small number which is pinned onto the top left shoulder of their jersey, so that it can easily be seen by the team of time-keepers who must keep track of the riders’ progress around the 0.8 mile circuit; riders in the 6 mile and 10 mile time trials also have a larger number, which is pinned onto the back of their jersey).

The time-keeping team establish themselves adjacent to the finish line. The area which they inhabit is cordoned off, to discourage interference. (But it’s great that the finish line is so close to the start line as it means that they nonetheless remain part of, rather than separate from, the happy scene.) The time-keepers’ task is a demanding one, requiring uninterrupted concentration. The team, led by the seemingly indefatigable and definitely indispensable Bob Muir, have honed their craft as these Thursday night events have grown increasingly popular, and their task therefore more complicated.

The pattern which has become established is this – the first riders to race are those doing two miles (two and a half laps); they are followed by those doing six miles (seven and a half laps); and then finally, riders completing a ten-mile time trial (twelve and a half laps). On Thursday there were 60 riders in total. They leave at one minute intervals, so there are always many riders on the track at any time. The time-keepers cannot snooze!

There are other helpers too. To one side is a refreshment table for tea, coffee, squash and biscuits. Some people organise this. And there is always a ‘starter’ – someone to hold you upright on your bike, enabling you to clip fully in before beginning your ride, and ensuring you start at the right time. All starters have their own style, and all riders their own ways of interacting with them. Some starters hold only onto your seat tube; others steady the front as well as the rear of your bike. Some start to rock you gently back and forth as your start time approaches; others hold you steady as a rock until it’s time for you to burst free. Your departure is sometimes accompanied by ‘good luck’, or ‘have a good ride’.

I’m not sure I should admit how I love the fleeting intimacy of this relationship – between you as the rider about to explode off the line and the person tasked with holding you there, keeping you safe and facilitating a smooth transition from stillness into flow.

No doubt we all differ in this, but I am happiest when I feel able to place my left hand on the starter’s right shoulder. By this the already intimate relationship between us becomes unambiguously physical. As a rider I feel that I am thus more obviously seeking support. And I like to think that the bond between us, however it may or may not develop into the future, becomes just that little bit stronger. Besides, I’m a wobbly bike rider at the best of times!

Relationships matter, in cycling as in life. For all its apparent individualism, time-trialling is no different. It would not exist without close and abiding relationships of solidarity and loyalty between specific people. So I’ll say it now in case I forget to say it later – I thank and salute all those who work so hard, week in, week out, to make these (and similar) events happen. They have become a central part of my own family’s life, and they are a central part of the cycling culture which many people are working in many ways to establish and broaden in this part of the world.

The first riders to go are the two-milers. Here’s Flo, who set off at 7:04 (number 4), during her race. Flo is 7. Those riding the two-mile time trial tend to be younger children. Riding smaller bikes, with smaller gears, and using little legs, two miles is enough. Most important is that they’re participating, developing a sense of the capabilities of their bodies, and having fun. During her first few time trials, Flo would ride past us with a look of absolute joy on her face. When we asked her about this, she told us that having people cheering her on made her break out in an involuntary smile. I’m not sure whether or not I’m pleased that she’s since learned to control herself, and take the whole thing more seriously! Last week she was a little disappointed with her time. After getting a PB of 8 minutes and 52 seconds in windy conditions the previous week, she was 18 seconds slower.

One of the many fantastic things about these events is how they’ve become really inclusive. Time trialling might have traditionally been seen as rather an isolated endeavour – one person (most commonly a man) alone on the road, riding against the watch. There’s nothing wrong in this, but Thursday nights feel quite different – many families participate, some with three generations.

Because the event takes place on a purpose-built cycle track, young children who are not allowed to race on the roads can participate. And – thanks in large part to the superb efforts of Salt Ayre Cog Set in introducing children across our district to the thrills of cycling – many are doing so, along with their friends, siblings, parents, grand-parents and other relatives.

Bobby, who’s 9, has this year graduated to the six-mile time trial. In the photo above he’s alongside Ffion, who is in his class at school, before their rides. Salt Ayre Thursday time trials also seem to be becoming a family affair in Ffion’s house. Ffion has been riding six miles whilst her Dad, Andrew, rides the ten. This week Ffion’s brother Rhys, who’s 6, had his first go – and looked like he was having a wild time as he rode 2 miles in an excellent 9 minutes and 21 seconds. Meanwhile Mum, Sandra, had a go at a time trial for the very first time, completing ten miles in a highly respectable 32 minutes and 21 seconds.

Here’s another way in which these events are reaching out and embracing people who might otherwise never have found the pleasures of competitive cycling. They are creating a family friendly atmosphere and a safe, welcoming environment, in which ‘entering into the spirit’ and ‘having a go’ is really all that matters. And because of this, new people are coming to cycling, and breathing fresh life into cycling, including people who perhaps wouldn’t be seen dead in a skin-suit and who might hate the idea of banging up and down a distant dual-carriageway early on a Sunday morning.

Bobby set off at 7:21, and had a great ride, recording 21 minutes and 2 seconds for the six miles, beating his previous personal best by 21 seconds. I’ve been very impressed by how naturally he’s stepped up to the longer distance, so that already he seems to treat racing over six miles rather than two as entirely normal. Here he is having finished, looking suitably pleased with himself.

Sue was our next household member to go, setting off for ten miles at 7:44. I don’t want to hark on about the achievements of our particular family; as I’ve said already, for many of those taking part this event has become a distinctly family affair, and everyone, younger and older, slower and faster, achieves something real and important, and has lots of interesting stories to tell.

But that said, the stories I know best are those closest to me, so what I will say about Sue is how she didn’t ride a time trial until she was past forty, how she barely trains (we go out for occasional rides together, and also as a family, but she doesn’t put in the long hours in the saddle which I am wont to do), how as a child and indeed for most of her life she’d never have considered herself as ‘sporty’ or ‘athletic’. And yet, having easy access to events such as this helps to make her so, both ‘athletic’ and ‘sporty’. In providing an inclusive and safe space a short ride from our home, where anyone can give cycle sport a go, the Salt Ayre Thursday evening time trials are democratising activity, health, fitness, and cycling.

I’m not saying there are no ‘barriers to entry’. To say so would be for anyone naive, but for a sociologist inexcusable. Clearly, all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons will feel uncomfortable in hopping onto a bike and trying to ride it as fast as they’re able around a track, as part of an organised event. But there is very clear evidence from the people who are participating that the Thursday evening time trials are succeeding in significantly lowering those barriers which once existed, and thus enabling a greater range of people to jump over them, onto a bike.

I hope I don’t sound patronising. My point is that occasions such as these should not only be celebrated, but actively supported and encouraged. What value should we – whether as individuals, as families, as communities, or as a society – put on a regular time and place in which different members of a family can come together and take part in the ‘same’ event? An event in which everyone can have a go? The reasons people ride, how they ride, their experiences of riding, and what they’re getting out of riding will probably all be different. But these differences don’t eclipse the undoubted fact that such riding is similarly good for us. In a healthy society such events would be at the centre of every community.

Sue managed a very creditable 31 minutes and 16 seconds, 58 seconds slower than her personal best. (I’m not sure she agrees with me, but I think she should aim to crack ‘evens’, which is to ride 10 miles in under 30 minutes, at an average speed of above 20 mph, this year. On the next calm night I’ve no doubt she’ll either do so, or come very close.)

Over an hour after Flo, I was last of our family to set off. I finished in a time of 25 minutes and 56 seconds. Fastest 10 miler of the night was John Ingham, in 22 minutes and 31 seconds.

I’ll write in more detail about my own experiences of riding time trials at Salt Ayre some other time. The key point for now is that Thursday night cycling at Salt Ayre, and thus potentially everywhere, has become an important and healthy local occasion, and exactly the kind of thing which should be more widely promoted.

Time trialling

September 21, 2009

Sunday, 5:30 am, the alarm doesn’t rouse me, I’d turned it off by mistake sometime during a broken night’s sleep, but I’m awake anyway, waiting for dawn to break yet slowly realising that I’ll be riding before it does.

Downstairs everything is waiting, prepared the night before. I’m remembering how to do this. My bike is cleaned if not perfectly adjusted (note again, to book myself onto a bike maintenance course), my clothes laid out.

I’m here, doing the stuff you have to do to participate in a sport. First I feel pleased with myself, then I feel smug for feeling pleased with myself, and then I reassure myself there’s nothing hollow about this, and I feel pleased over again. I eat a bowl of muesli and yoghurt, drink a mug of tea, make an expresso and leave it to cool whilst getting ready to leave.

I’d planned to leave at 6:15. By 6 I’m worried I’ve not left enough time to reach the race. It’s still dark. I find a front and back light and fumble them onto my bike. Swig the coffee, then off, out of the still sleeping house.

I love riding when the streets are empty. I love riding in the night. Whenever I do, I remember I don’t do it enough. Over the Lune, north out of Lancaster into the purple sky.

I’m riding 20 miles to a race, the kind of thing I’ve not done since I was a kid. It’s Lancaster CC’s open 25 mile time trial on the Levens and Lindale course. My start time is 8:09am.

The A6 slumbers. I spin the gears through Slyne-with-Hest, Bolton-le-Sands and Carnforth. A voice is behind me. It’s Graham Atkinson’s; he’s riding to his marshalling duties. He rides fixed, 48×18. Turning the pedals at 100 revs a minute, he rides 20 mph. We ride side-by-side and chat, I drop back for a tow, we chat again, I break a sweat, shout to Graham that I’d better drop back, and he soon disappears into the road ahead, a lone figure against a still lightening countryside. Graham trains as fast as I race. This year.

I don’t want to overdo it before I start. I haven’t ridden a 25 mile time trial yet this year. I’ve one today, then another next week. I rode one last year, in 73 mins, 33 seconds. My goal at the start of this year was to ride the distance in under 70 minutes.

I find the start. Two long lines of cars are parked either side of the lane. Some riders warm up on rollers pulled from car boots still gaping in the cold morning air. I sign on and collect my number from event HQ,  a gazebo with table and trophy standing silent there. The team of marshals huddle together, awaiting instructions from race organiser Ken Peasnell.

Clive Scott, one of today’s helpers, pins number 39 to my jersey. He’s happy for me to leave the gear I don’t want to carry whilst I race (clothes, one of my spare tubes, food and drink for afterwards) in his van. Clive’s son George is in there, watching a DVD or playing a computer game. For a second he reminds me of myself, in my childhood, waiting in cars – neither participating nor helping, occupying a kind of in-between space and time … but George rides bikes, races bikes, already; it took me years to find that kind of place for myself …

I chat to Judith Irving, who will leave one minute before me. At the start we meet again, and wish each other luck. She’s off. I move to the start line, am held up, watch the seconds count down, click in, try to regulate my breathing …

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go … this is when the world goes into the background, this is when hopefully less than 70 minutes of time-out starts. It’s certainly some kind of freedom …

The first stretch is downhill. I’m up to 32 miles per hour, but trying not to overdo it. Less than 2 miles into the race, Richard Handley, who started a minute behind me, comes past; my mind starts calculating, ‘at that pace he should beat me by about 13 minutes’ (he does, and more … he’s an excellent young rider).

It strikes me as a slightly strange way to spend a Sunday morning, hammering as hard as I’m able – along with around a hundred other people – along the A590 in south Cumbria. But then I start wondering what all the people inside all the vehicles coming past me are up to, and everything – car boot sales, mountain walks, tourism – also starts to seem pretty weird.

I beat my target. 68 minutes, 12 seconds. I’m chuffed. Everything’s relative. Here, among these people, that’s slow. Compared to where I was a year ago, let alone five years ago, it’s not at all bad. I see Judith at the finish. She’s done around 1:06:30. I congratulate her, she congratulates me. I say I’d better get home, 68 miles under my belt, for a family day out. The sun is shining, it’s a glorious autumn day. She says she’d better get home, see if her kids are up yet. Not bad, this cycling life, I think, and I bet she does too ..

My legs ache today, but my head doesn’t …

Hill climbing

September 11, 2009

In British club cycling, autumn is the time of hill climbs. A hill climb is a race, by yourself, against the clock, up a hill. Simple really. Simple, short, and tough. My first ever competitive cycling experience was the English Schools Cycling Association Hill Climb Championship near Matlock, Derbyshire, in – oooh – 1983 or 4, I guess. I was a student at Solihull Sixth Form College, I was new to the sport, I was riding a cheap Raleigh 10 speed, and I don’t think I’d ever seen – let alone ridden – a 1 in 4 hill before. I didn’t make it to the top. I don’t remember feeling embarrassed; after all, I’d given it a go. I do recall grunting men on fixed wheel bikes grinding their ways to the top, and that first unforgettable feeling of trying – and failing – to ride up an asphalt wall.

Last night was the second of Lancaster Cycling Club’s annual club hill climbs. It’s become my Club, and this year I’ve got a bit more active, going for ‘training rides’ rather than simply ‘rides’, and riding quite a few evening 10 mile time trials. But I’m still this side of plump, and I was frankly terrified of the prospect of trying to haul my mass uphill at speed. It’s only a year ago that the prospect of riding up Jubilee Tower, last night’s climb, at any speed, was daunting enough. But there were also good reasons to have a go: becoming more involved in the Club has increased my commitment to support events;  my main training partner, Jon Barry, fancies himself on the hills and was keen to have a go; and for the first time in more than 20 years, I’m planning to train through winter, and to have a proper go at racing next year, so it makes sense to set some times which I can use as benchmarks for my progress next season.

Part one was last week – the short, steep climb of Condor Bottoms. I surprised myself at the speed at which I set off, but felt reasonably OK. Then I saw the bunch of spectators at the hairpin bend up ahead, waiting at perhaps the steepest section of the climb. Obviously you want to look your best as you go past a watching crowd, so I tried very hard to look calm, graceful, dignified, fast. Ha, ha, ha … I’m sure they weren’t deceived, and as soon as I was past them, my legs turned to jelly. Still, I clawed my way to the finish, and though I was slow, I beat 3 minutes, which was my personal target.

Last night was part two, the longer, higher climb up the other side of the valley, from Quernmore crossroads to Jubilee Tower, perched high above Morecambe Bay. On a sunny evening, the views up there are glorious, the Lakeland hills to the north-west, the Fylde coast to the south-west, Lancaster down far below and Morecambe stretching out to the sea. But Jubilee Tower was the destination, we started from the bottom. There I met William, who lives half way up the hill, and so rides it regularly, but who was last night riding his first ever competitive event. How wonderful to race on the roads you know; I love it when a rider wins on home turf. I won’t try to guess William’s age, but I hope he wouldn’t mind my suggesting he’s a fair bit older than me. And then I started, a minute behind Jess Atkinson, who’s 13 years old. Cycling’s what you’d call an inclusive sport …

Although it involves struggle and a certain pain, I loved it. I loved riding hard up a hill which only a year before I was scared to tackle at all. I loved the rare feeling of racing without a helmet (it’s all uphill, after all). I loved needing continuously to judge whether I was overdoing it or underdoing it, and adjusting my effort accordingly. I loved knowing the steepest part was over, and feeling my speed increase with the softening of the hill. I loved overtaking and shouting encouragement to Jess, to be myself overtaken and have the encouragement of her Dad Graham. I loved the feel of sweat dripping from my chin. I loved finishing, being at the finish, watching others finish, the post-race talk. I loved seeing the care and commitment of people such as Bob Muir – time keeping again last night –  who invest their love in the preservation of this magical sporting world.

One hundred and fifteen years after the last one, the second bicycle boom is underway up here in the north west of England. I’ll write much more about this over the coming weeks, months, years, I hope. But the growing popularity of club cycling is one aspect of it. Last night was beautiful – I mean really beautiful – to see. Women, men, girls and boys, all ages, mothers and fathers with daughters and sons, old hands and novices, gentle calls of encouragement drifting across the dipping sun of a glorious autumnal evening.

I hope I am there next year, I hope I am a little faster next year, I hope that perhaps my son Bobby will ride out with me then, and I hope that cycling’s revival will be that bit stronger, clearer, more self-assured. And I count myself very, very lucky to be able to hope for all these things. There are many reasons to ride a bike, and they include these.