Micro-tour. Day 7: and so to ‘home’.

As usual, waking in the middle of Swaledale was a treat. Being able to sit out in the sun with a coffee in that environment is a pleasure I’ll never take for granted.

Furthermore, knowing that whichever way one heads out on a bike is going to be either gently challenging and scenic, or very relaxing… and scenic.

I had no fixed plan for today other than to rise late, leave when I wanted, and loop around some nice lanes, maybe stopping for a pint, until I hit the North Yorks Moors, my home, though I’m still pretty sure there’s a certain indeterminacy as to where exactly that is within those bounds.

The beauty of such a carefree approach to such a day is that it gives me time to think. The drawback of having such a rudderless day was that it gave me time to think.

Without dwelling too much upon the emotions experienced throughout the week, it’s been a hugely positive journey. I’ve met some wonderful people, the routes have been stunning, and there was no point at which I felt overwhelmed by the terrain or distances. I had just one moment when, bereft of food, energy, and favourable road, I willed away the metres, to be precise, the road from Garrigill to Nenthead. The slow progress and cold-shiver onset of hunger knock were exacerbated further by torrents of rain water rolling down the tarmac, seemingly pushing me back down the valley.

I only came close to breaking down once, twice if you include the impromptu visit to a bike shop to annoyingly put right a previous repair and to replace a rear light, last seen, unbeknownst to me, bouncing down a little road in north Lancashire/ south Cumbria.

The mechanical type of maintenance was routine, much like being diagnosed, and fixed by a physician. These are acceptable; a natural result of wear and tear upon the machine or body. The other type are still seen as, well, a little awkward. Harder to explain, slippery to grasp, and set some people on edge as to how to react, what to say or do. Some people, that is. My little wobble happened to be in front of lovely strangers I’d sat next to in a pub. After chatting for some time, about the usual stuff, work, life, love, family, it’s like they knew all the supportive, and really touching things to say. The floodgates weren’t opened, but the pressure behind them was definitely apparent. Let’s just say they were breached.

I suppose it’s all rather analogous to the trip as a whole. One gets the machinery fettled, but often at the expense of the flesh and blood. Remedies to that are often piecemeal: a beer here and there, a nice encounter, gazing at the scenery, but the long-term maintenance gets ignored.

This became palpable as I neared ‘home’. The vista of the North Yorkshire Moors allows one to see clearly hills I lived beneath for years. To all intents, the only place I’ve ever been able to call home, given that my childhood felt so fragmented. There was an enormous pull to that place. Nevertheless, I had to crack on to my temporary abode, conscious that it’d be cold, and empty. Cranking the fire and spinning some records isn’t a bad way to spend an evening recovering, but again, it’s piecemeal.

Long-term maintenance still needed. Working on that.

Micro-tour. Day 6: fifty shades of earth.

It’s quite remarkable how even fairly small changes in altitude can affect what grows, what thrives, and what doesn’t. This was quite apparent at the end of yesterday’s journey crossing into Northumberland and descending from the bleakness that surrounds old mining communities like Nenthead. Absent of any real kind of vegetation taller than a couple of feet in height, the eye is drawn to the telegraph poles that march inexorably across the landscape, the roadside snow markers, none of which stand perpendicular to the ground, and to the gouged out stone, scarring the earth indefinitely. There are also the remnants of mine workings from a once-flourishing industry; the sheds, huts, and machinery so embattled yet so robust the casual visitor wouldn’t know if they were used yesterday, or a half century ago.

It’s only once you drop down a few hundred feet you’re once again accompanied by signs of rural civilisation; dry-stone walls that glisten regardless of the weather, buildings of more than one colour, and flora in shades of green, rather than shades of brown.

My journey today took me back and forth across that spectrum. Hitting Northumberland, Cumbria, Durham, and North Yorkshire, I traversed the valleys of the upper Tyne, to Allendale, to the Wear, the Tees, the Eden, and eventually Swaledale, each river accompanied by lengthy and arduous hills that punctuated the softness of the valleys. Think of it as tracing a path down the vertebrae of England’s upper backbone. If I were England, I’d have liked that.

The wind was brutal, but it could have been worse, and the rain did stop for a while. At the crest of St. John’s Chapel I was blown off the road, the baggage on my bike acting like a sail. The entire climb was into the teeth of it so to say it was slow progress was an understatement. Likewise, the slog up to Grains o’ th’ Beck from Teesdale was equally pedestrian. There were no pedestrians incidentally, nor were there other cyclists, apart from a group of veterans beginning the climb from Langdon Beck. Each and every one undoubtedly thankful for the developments in bike and clothing technology. The ’80s and ’90s were a different time, requiring a different effort, not just for terrain like this, but also for the weather.

Like I say, it could have been worse.

Micro-tour. Day 5: dispensing with prettiness.

I don’t claim to have much in common with any of Britain’s literary figureheads. Fair enough, I did speak to J.G. Ballard once whilst on agency work at directory enquiries, but unless there’s some embryonic part-written novel depicting the existential plight of call centre operatives during the nation’s Thatcherite-Blairite transition from industrial decay to service sector servitude, I don’t think he’ll have taken much from our brief exchange. I do however share a little bit of weirdness with W.H. Auden.

Legend has it he had upon the wall of his New York office a 1:63 360 (1″ to 1 mile) Ordnance Survey ‘Tourist map’, those conveniently portable and evocatively shaded maps ideal for visualising a geographic area, imperfect for walking, but damn perfect for cycling. His copy depicted the north Pennines. As it happened, as a schoolkid I had the North Yorkshire Moors stuck to mine.

Auden’s was a device to ameliorate homesickness it’s claimed, as well as to no doubt inspire. Mine on the other hand impelled me to exploration. I would look at it for so long I’m pretty sure the topography of my home region was burned indelibly onto my memory, and my psyche.

I’d imagine what lay beyond that northern scarp slope of the Cleveland Hills so familiar, and so loved, by Teessiders. The map was a way to facilitate this, and in combination with a bike, well…

As one social geographer puts it:

“a topology of memories: as a sedimented, folded, undulating terrain of associations and memories” (D. Atkinson, 2007)

Leaving the northern part of the Lake District, those very fells Auden loved so dearly seem omnipresent. However the line between leaden sky and leadened earth changes with the weather. As the day shifted from bitter torrential rain to autumnal sunbeams they edged into and out of arm’s reach; at times miles away, unattainable, at times looming into touching distance. Nevertheless, the abstract, elusive outlines of Hartside, and the indiscernible summit of Cross Fell further away, cast a shadow over my day, knowing the effort to not only get access, but what comes later.

Now personally, I can totally get on board with the dourness of the North Pennines, and indeed Auden’s obsession with them, more so than the flowery beautification of Wordsworth’s Lakeland. Originating from the pebbledashed and poured concrete council estates of Teesside, and spending much time at the ‘Gare, I can appreciate that nexus of industry and nature. Similarly Auden’s Midlands upbringing exposed him to chimneys and smoke and, fascinated by the machinations of modern life, he discovered the harmonious and precarious link between lead mining and the solitude and harshness of upland life. I think that’s where his moral compass pointed toward.

“(it) starts to get interesting once hedges turn to dry-stone walls, towards wonderful desolation” (W.H. Auden, 1954)

Yet, when the dry stone walls finally disappear, and the road leaves the sweet resinous warmth of coniferous forestry, when you rise into the Atlantic windchill… that’s when it gets interesting.

Micro-tour. Day 4: let’s do a loop.

The Lakes…. bless ’em. They have a tough time. Like the attractive celebrity couple who receive the persistent attention of voyeuristic public and paparazzi alike, this National Park draws the hoards daily, from all over the globe, to leer at its double act of lakes and mountains. It feels that no part of the region is immune from touristy scrutiny, exploitation, and commodification. I blame Wordsworth.

“a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” (William Wordsworth, 1835)

At least W.H. Auden exercised a subtlety when romanticising his favourite region (more on that tomorrow… I bet you can’t wait…)

I know, I know: I’m one of them. But I wanted my presence here to be a fleeting, appreciative, and non-intrusive one. It took some effort to feel I was achieving that.

Firstly it means getting off the beaten track. This requires going the extra mile. Literally. In order to avoid the clogged arteries that feed the area’s industry you do really clock up some circuitous mileage. As the crow flies, the distance between my overnight stays wasn’t that great, but taking in some decent climbing whilst avoiding the manically busy B roads and passes, upon whom notoriety has been bestowed by Fred Whitton-eers and others of their ilk (don’t even get me started on the sportive phenomena) required some off-piste imagination (i.e. getting lost). This was often simply a result of some creative junction guesswork or carrying on down a road just because it felt nice. But isn’t that why most of us started cycling? An escape, an improvised journey of exploration?

The results were satisfying, though bloody hard. Furthermore, I was rewarded with traffic-free roads, and chance encounters with other kindred spirits in which our two-wheeled conversations elicited the same response: uncertainty prevailing when asked, “which way have you come?”, or “have you been far?”. It seems we were all winging it together.

And we didn’t need a T-shirt or to fork out £££ to do so…

Sorry. (Not sorry)

Micro-tour. Day 3: knowing when to stop.

I’ve always been a little competitive on the bike. My last few group rides up to a couple of years ago were in the company of 20 odd year old Elite and 1st category riders, and however composed I’d appear during the ride, unwilling to let go of wheels and still engage in banter sans breathlessness, the rest of the day would require my 46 year old carcass play catch up. It takes something significant to switch off that side of my brain.

On Tuesday that ‘something’ was the realisation that I’m on holiday! My chaperones for the morning leaving Lancashire were lovely but I found myself following the wheels again. This wasn’t necessarily an effort but it detracted totally from looking at the scenery, and pausing to take photos. Eventually I said to myself, “stop”. Within moments I’d snapped a couple of wonderful scenes and discovered Lancashire’s foremost jazz café. Great music, conversation, croissants and coffee courtesy of my generous hosts.

The rest of the ride was relaxed, allowing me to appreciate scenery I’d seen only fleetingly three decades prior when I’d been booted out of a van mid-morning to do a coast to coast before the sun went down.

The Arnside and Silverdale AONB is a stunning part of the world. Gentle undulations seem to take you high above the water and salt flats in minutes. The presence of the sea is always felt, like Brittany in fact. Sandy roads and warm salty breezes characterise the rides around here. The villages, slow-moving traffic, and properties hint towards the general demographic: white, grey, affluent, and conservative, with a small ‘c’ at least. In spite of an apparent lack of heterogeneity, it is a very pretty, chocolate-box landscape.

There is also the total absence of the tourist mania that pervades the Lake District further north. To be honest, this is only really detectable once you hit any A roads that link the major honeypot destination towns; the rest of the routes that link villages and hamlets are way too circuitous and narrow for any day visitor to the region. As a result, they’re perfect for cyclists. However, unlike me towards the end of that day, venturing into Bowness (for nostalgic reasons, obv), just hit ‘STOP’ and take in this instead…

Micro-tour. Day 2: grippy.

Today, it is fair to say, made me feel like a cyclist again.

It rained, then it rained some more. It was windy, unremittingly so, and the gradients… there were many. In short, perfect source material for Basil Bunting.

Today also offered potential for photographs given the elevations and expanses I was aiming for. However, for the most part the blurred line between land and sky proved to be a nebulous, watery affair. On the one occasion clouds rolled back the imposing edifice of Inglebrough was revealed. I doubt that even today the view from that fell top would afford the views one is capable of seeing on clearer days. It receded pretty much as quickly, almost resigned to the fact its lofty nature was wasted somewhat.

I also got chance to partake in a pastime of many touring cyclists: sheltering. Under a railway viaduct, a tree, a bus shelter… all were welcomed, although chugging on several Kit Kats and some dangerously blue ‘energy drink’ as curious tourists entered the latter (then swiftly left) made me feel like some circus attraction, as pools of water leached from my feet.

Actually, I lie: I did get some wind assistance. For two short spells I headed northwards and made full use of the strong currents to guide me into my destination. As I descended from the beautiful Forest of Bowland region I had a brief chance to explore (I will return here soon, the networks of quiet rolling lanes are a cyclist’s dream), entering the Lune estuary the roads became busier and a little more frenetic. This is typical in areas where even modest centres of population meet with natural water features, as people cling to the land available to them, while sizeable expanses of uninhabitable marshes, saltflats, or floodplains sit peacefully adjacent. As a result my route began to change direction constantly, seeking out the quietest, and lumpiest roads available. Yet despite the constant battering by rain and wind I did keep thinking one thing: if this weather was unleashed from my native north east coast rather than the sub-tropical west, everything would be several degrees colder and invariably even grippier.

Micro-tour. Day 1: a little journey of rediscovery.

In my efforts to get myself fit for the Everesting attempt in October I’m now at the end of my first, albeit very brief, day. Now, at 4am, I’m wide awake, listening to my friend’s albums, some of which I’ve not heard for years.

After logistical, mechanical, and typical (for me) last minute issues, I didn’t leave home until after 4pm, but managed to get close to my destination just as darkness approached. Knowing I only had under 10 miles left I felt a pint was deserved. What did I have? C’mon. It’s the Yorkshire Dales, and the spattering of invariably inviting looking premises all offer exactly the same repertoire of sub 4% beverages with ornate pumpclips invoking some pre-industrial idyll with sheaves of barley, or livestock. If modernity is represented, then tractors feature heavily. Anyway, I digress: I had a bitter. And, as it happens, I love a good bitter… (watch this space…)

The 60 odd miles were into an unrelenting headwind, and largely uphill, so not bad preparation on a bike registering as LGV on the scale of bicycle transport, with the corresponding aerodynamic coefficient of a Luton box van. Nevertheless, they ticked by nicely.

Yet the main theme of the day emerged after hitting the North Yorkshire hinterlands of the Vale of Mowbray. The lanes that wiggle throughout these flat or gently rolling expanses are so embedded in the memory of my first thirty years of cycling that there was no recourse to maps, or to wonder how long a diversion or loop through K and V would take in order to get from A to B. Furthermore, I found myself rubbernecking for familiar landmarks, views, and properties that had registered throughout those three decades.

The crazy thing is, I only live a stone’s throw away, yet I rarely ride here, never visiting the cafés I once hung out in for hours. The last two years have provided new focal points and, as you may have guessed, I’m a little prone to nostalgia, the ache of, and for, the past. Maybe I’m just repressing; avoiding those familiar sites of past pleasures in order to make new memories. That’s a good thing surely? But, like listening to old records, it never harms to rediscover once in a while.

Everesting: the sheer lunacy of my uphill battle.

I’m going to level with you: I’ve barely ridden my bike in well over a month. So why, you may ask, am I even considering doing something fairly extreme like an Everesting attempt? Well, given that I’ve garnered the support from my employer (we’re even releasing a charity beer, to be premiered at York CAMRA Beer Festival 2018) and a few local businesses, I’m in the position in which I’ve backed myself into a corner: the only option now is to come out fighting.

This is proving fairly difficult. I’m trying to ride on a weekend but the nature of my truncated Saturdays (still in bed worn out at lunchtime) affords me just Sunday to do anything approaching a focused ride where metres are climbed, and kilometres ridden, ticked off.

There are possible solutions to this. One is to ride out to meet a club and, while enjoying the wheels and the distraction of the group, I travel further with less effort. Another solution is to spend a week or so ‘conditioning’ myself to become accustomed to once again spending consecutive days in the saddle, something I’ve not done for well over a year. This will ensure the habit of riding daily will return, and fitness levels will improve. That’s the plan. Turn my legs. Constantly. Against gravity…

So, with limited resources, but taking full advantage of the Warmshowers.org community (as a guest for the first time rather than as a host!), I’m embarking upon a mini-tour of all the hilly regions the north of England has to offer. It’ll be my first proper holiday in years.

On Monday next week I head west across the Dales. The route then takes me to the Bay of Morecambe, up into the Lake District, across the high North Pennines, eastwards reaching the Northumberland coast, before heading south to my home in the North Yorks Moors on Friday.

If this proves to be an effective plan it’ll allow me to shed a bit of flab, firm up, and hone my mental toughness. I’m under no illusions that it’ll help me climb as efficiently and as effortlessly as I did only five, or even just two years ago, but it’ll certainly help, and let’s face it, the scenery will be beautiful.

So, in order to complete this challenge I do need to fully adopt the mantra:

“I have a life, and it only goes in one direction: forward.

Like Don Draper, I’m usually trying to convince myself, rather than others, that this is an approach I take, becoming nostalgic at all too frequent intervals which are neither healthy, nor conducive, to progress. Yet whilst I acknowledge that I’m never going to turn the clock back to happier, or fitter times, I will strive to improve my current conditions, and consequently those around me.

It won’t all be relentless toil. I’m planning on redressing the prolonged agony of defying gravity by spending time in the stunning locations of my friendly hosts, and meeting old and new friends en route. There’ll also be some missionary work involved too, spreading the good word of Brass Castle amongst those I meet at my scheduled stops at Hawkshead, and Wylam breweries.

I can’t wait. It’s a significant journey for me, and another forward push to chase the stigma. Let’s hope there are some tanline benefits too!

Every. Pedal. Rev.

I’m trying to convince myself it’s for a variety of reasons that I struggled. I rode my bike yesterday for around three hours. I felt every single pedal stroke. Most were just an effort. Some smarted like sciatic pain. Only my lungs were spared. Everything else hurt.

It genuinely could be attributable to various things.

It was windy. Extremely so. The first three miles leaving my home are uphill, starting at 25% for a good three quarters of a mile, but easing to less-than-false flats that arc westerly into the teeth of yesterday’s prevailing gusts.

When your last three miles to home takes around five and a half minutes, it tells you something about the ride out

I was generally tired, and this local terrain doesn’t afford one an easy start. I am also plodding around on 38mm Challenge Gravel Grinders which, although unimpeachable for the various road surfaces one encounters around here, aren’t the most sylphlike when it comes to ripping up hills, without having to gear down.

I’m also now using — fitted as standard I must add to this kind of all-purpose machine —  (holds breath) — a compact… So, instead of my once effortless shifting of gears from my datum of 53:17, I now have to navigate gigantic leaps across ratios. These are as jarring to the legs as they are to the eye; straight through blocks are pretty, large chainrings, graceful.

There is also my recent dislocation. For almost twenty years I had the luxury of choosing bespoke routes that accommodated levels of free time and tiredness/enthusiasm. Now my rides are more limited. Beautiful, but definitely limited. I’m still finding my feet around these parts. A few widely scattered cafés would help…

Yet this myriad grasping don’t quite explain the fundamental reason I struggled: I’m getting old. I’m getting soft around the edges. I’m getting comfortably lazy. There is one, and only one, remedy for this current condition: to “get out of my chair” a little more. It’s easily alleviated  (well, easy in theory). Ride more.

Be like Coppi: “ride a bike, ride a bike” ad infintum.

Be tough. Be cool. Embrace the cycling life I once immersed myself into. Early to bed, early to rise, makes the rider happy, healthy, chiselled and bloody hard.

It’s fair to say that I’m at an impasse in my career, and those closest to me know the consternation, and anxiety this has meted out. There are future opportunities, some of which may come to fruition. Yet when regulars in the brewery tap house helpfully suggest that I should take up coaching I smile and politely deflect the conversation. If pressed I have to assert that not only is the market saturated with ‘coaches’, many of whom have no more than a 2:2 in some peripheral academic discipline and a fail-safe business plan — oh…and an internet connection, but that I’m currently not the best man for the job — being a bit soft of late.

It is indeed time to get out of my chair.

Pride and ambivalence: notes from an ageing cyclist on the Tour de Yorkshire.

image

Grimping a North Yorkshire berg, c.1988.

image

Scaling a similar nearby ascent, almost thirty years on.

In the summer of 2014 a bold move to bring the Tour de France’s Grand Depart out of the major cities and into the provinces, as part of its biannual excursion away from French soil, was realised. The ambitious project to start the iconic event in Yorkshire, and route the first two stages through some of the most visually stunning landscapes this island has to offer, created excitement across Europe, and not just for cyclists. On that sunny summer weekend, Yorkshire’s towns, cities and rurality were bathed in the light of a million eyes, smiling at the spectacle of our ministerial majesty, dry stoned, sheep-lined dale providing the pastoral backdrop for a sport which successfully encompasses that tricky continuum from tradition to modernity. Graphene, carbon and titanium carved this ancient topography, propelled by athletes precariously pushing their biological provenance to physical, legal and ethical limits. Local businesses harnessed this opportunity to showcase their surroundings with relish. Many benefited significantly from being situated on the race’s parcours, taking several month’s worth of profits on just one day in July. One other notable outgrowth was the Tour de Yorkshire.
That one time occurrence, ‘when I rode from my doorstep and back to watch Le Tour’, was to be replicated in a fashion, albeit on a considerably smaller scale. The lower profile stage race would take in local roads that myself and many of my cycling acquaintances had ridden countless times, in various states of exhaustion. It would swoop past cafés we’d sat ensconced in for hours, and it would scale the minor mountains that had tested us in training and in racing. We knew how physically demanding these roads were. We smugly differentiated our hard northern selves from our softer, southern other; who even cared about Ditchling Beacon when there was a climb like Rosedale to negotiate? Our hills provided that Holy Trinity of cycling challenges: gradient, crosswind and ‘grippiness’, a nebulous term used to sum up all manner of difficulties in road surface and general rideability. This new Tour of Yorkshire would illustrate just how tough us northerners were, are. We’d bask in the reflection of the sweat wrung out by these Continental riders. We would study their gearing, comparing esoteric notes. For those technologically switched on, digital GPS applications such as Strava measured the efforts and provided a numerical, though meaningless, hierarchy from which one could gauge levels of ability. It helped that we all knew someone participating who we rode with on a regular basis. A chance to rib and tease, but ultimately to respect.
More importantly for old-timers like me, the route provided a chance to congregate on hillsides with faces of shared, past endeavours. I stood on a cold, anonymous climb during the inaugural 2015 event only to be beeped and waved at by past team managers and teammates as they drove their lurid, laden team vehicles at speed along the twisty gravelly lanes. It brought a smile to my face knowing I had a tenuous place in this race’s nascent history. At pubs and cafés I encountered semi-familiar faces in varying stages of greyness and fitness, shaking hands and remarking upon appearance and well-being. It was reassuringly nice, to be rooted in some local community that was now brought to an international audience.
This year I’ll be indirectly connected again. One of my son’s bands is playing in a well-known local village as the the race passes through . He’ll be pumping out funky bass riffs to visitors and residents alike in celebration of the event. By virtue of my local knowledge, I’ll be able to watch the race in at least two places, relying entirely upon my bike, and ailing legs, to get me there.The inevitability of seeing ex-teammates by the roadside will mean I’ll once again be able to reconnect with my personal cycling heritage. Yet my deep love and history with cycling has been exposed to a bittersweet threat.
The increased popularity of cycling has been a product of many factors, many of which are external to the growth of this event. Yet there is a common outcome: the increasing numbers of cyclists taking to the roads, especially on weekends. This is of course great in itself. Mixed abilities now don cycling garments and both sexes participate in an activity which until recently had been the domain of the working-class male. There is a beauty to this burgeoning heterogeneity of cycling: it has become less impenetrable, more cosmopolitan, more Euro, and in some ways (though only some) less cliquish. However, this wave of popularity has spawned reaction. The centre-right press have fuelled the tirades of parochial residents averse to large groups of cyclists travelling, often discourteously, through their suburban and semi-rural communities. The gulf between motorist and other has grown, and it is growing. There is of course a certain irony here: most cyclists drive, and many motorists now own a bike. Yet the antipathy towards my kind is reaching a worrying hostility. I hear it a lot, especially as I reside in a small market town associated with this year’s event. Roads have been repaired, though much to the chagrin of disdainful drivers having been held up at temporary closures, and the day itself will incur frustrating diversions for those not bothered by the event’s imposition. I’m preparing myself mentally for this backlash.
There is one other facet to the swell of interest in cycling that irks. I’m no longer different. I’m lumped together with other middle aged men in Lycra. For almost thirty years I’ve been nonchalantly arriving in race headquarters and cafés personally harbouring that thrill of exoticism that was perceptible to me as a young lad, eyeing up the disciplined formations of shiny aluminum silently escaping the urban grime on Sunday mornings. The narcissistic vanity of cultivating the tan and tone of muscle still appeals, but the rest has evaporated. When asked about any aspect of my cycling, I feel compelled to add the rejoinder, “I’ve been doing this a while!” Yet like the miles I’ve clocked up in my legs, I’ll continue to slog those ribbons of tarmac that grace the Yorkshire landscape for long after the event, and perhaps cycling’s popularity, has passed.