My road bike is back in action and the snow and ice have nearly gone. And in contrast to most of January the first day of February was forecast to be neither especially cold nor windy. I decided to take advantage and celebrate moving into the last third of winter with a long ride. I know February’s weather can be harsh but its sun sometimes feels warm, and the days continue to grow longer. And look, the snowdrops are out! They are surely a sign of spring’s approach.
The world is opening up again, and mine with it.
I eat a quick breakfast and am gone before 7, planning a second more leisurely feast forty miles into the ride.
I follow the River Lune upstream, cross it into Halton, and take the back road to Kirkby Lonsdale; I spy my first snowdrops at dawn in its graveyard.
I take the road north-west towards Kendal. I don’t drop into the town but turn north at Oxenholme to skirt its eastern side along little-used lanes to Meal Bank. I cross the Rivers Mint, Sprint and Kent in quick succession and stop at Wilf’s in Staveley for that second breakfast.
From Staveley I climb south to Crook and then turn west to Windermere.
A hundred mile ride is a day out of life. It’s a day spent riding through other places and momentarily through a bunch of strangers’ lives. Those places and people would be there anyway. As a sociologist I’m supposed to say that I partly make them, but I know the truth is mainly that they make me, as a cyclist.
The Windermere ferry is a gift to Lakeland cycling. It lets you avoid bigger roads and stay off the beaten track. The rule is cyclists on last, off last. So on the other side with any cars already gone you’ve the road to Hawkshead more or less to yourself. And it’s a glorious stretch, with Lakeland’s central fells rising up ahead, getting closer all the time.
Friday’s ferry was empty save for me, and I was given the trip across England’s longest lake for free (it usually costs £1).
It’s a stiff climb off the lake up to Far Sawrey. This is the ride’s literary stretch; I ride past Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top home at Near Sawrey, and alongside Esthwaite Water into Hawskhead (that it’s closed to cars lifts the thrill of riding past William Wordsworth’s school and through the village centre).
Then it’s up Hawkshead Hill, taking care not to push too hard. For someone like me, for whom long rides are an occasional indulgence, there’s a right way of riding them. Above all, that’s carefully! I ride with the end in mind, thinking particularly about needing to have something left for the last thirty miles.
This is the heart of today’s long ride, along roads ordinarily out of reach. I’m being sure to enjoy it; the descent through the woods to Coniston Water is particularly fine.
Then at the Lake’s northern tip I turn south onto the lovely lane which traces its eastern shore.
John Ruskin’s home is here, Brantwood. More easily accessed from the industrial south once the railways (opposed by Wordsworth) were built, the shores of the southern lakes are sprinkled with the mansions of wealthy Victorian men including, for all his socialism, Ruskin. But he loved nature and when you see his home and its views (views which perhaps made possible some of his thoughts?) it seems easier to forgive his extravagance.
I pedal gently below the beech woodlands of Coniston’s sheltered shore. My legs appreciate the easier terrain but still I feel their fatigue growing. The woodland’s ground is coated with autumn’s fallen leaves. After the white blanket of recent weeks, the colours seem more vivid.
I ride beside the River Crake as it leaves the Lakes, travelling south out of Coniston Water towards Morecambe Bay. It flows under Lowick Bridge and Spark Bridge, where I leave it to head round to Bouth. There I’m cheered by the Twenty’s Plenty sign; it shows the push for lower speeds isn’t just an urban one, and is having effects here in rural Cumbria.
The road from Haverthwaite to Grange-over-Sands takes me through the villages of Cark, Flookburgh and Allithwaite. It’s a lovely route which for the most part marks the line where hills give way to moss, marsh, mudflat and, finally, sea.
By Grange I’ve covered 80 miles. My hunger for food has gone, but I know my body needs fuel. I stop at Hazelmere Bakery and eat enough to get me through the homeward leg.
The route from here is a familiar one, across the flat moss roads, then beneath Whitbarrow Scar to Levens, and from there across the River Kent and south via little lanes I’ve learnt like most cyclists to link up as a peaceful alternative to the A6.
The last part of a long ride is different from the first. My natural curiosity in the wider world is blunted, and replaced by growing inward obsession. It’s as if tiredness brings automatic reallocation of my body’s dwindling resources. The places through which I move no longer attract my attention; they’re still there, but my focus now is on pedals turning, steering home.
I don’t dislike the sensation. It’s an inherent part of the long ride experience. A hundred mile ride starts with a target and ends with a memory, but perhaps the best bit is – at the end of the day – the feeling of exhaustion earned.
I wonder if I’ll ever tire of what feels to me now like the pure privilege and pleasure of a full day spent out on my bike?