Butter Tubs

The climb of Butter Tubs will be better known once the first stage of next year’s Tour de France passes over it. How hard the riders find it will depend a lot on the wind. Yesterday, damp and blustery with the wind at my back, I barely noticed it, the gradient never so steep as to force deep effort. But at over 500 metres, conditions towards the top can be dreadful; I’ve been brought almost to a standstill by head winds here, and felt my bike being blown beneath me by side winds.

The Butter Tubs themselves lie just over the pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale; this is limestone country and the Tubs are deep potholes set close to the road, used – legend has it – for keeping butter cool.

The Butter Tubs

From the little market town of Hawes in Wensleydale you can see the Butter Tubs road climbing north over the moor; disconcertingly, the road seems to be clinging to the fellside for dear life. Out of Hawes and across the River Ure, you wind up past the hamlet of Simonstone. Below you upland rain pummels down through Hardraw Force, England’s highest unbroken waterfall. There’s a short, steep section (where the biggest crowds, including me and my family, will gather on the first Saturday of next July) before the road relaxes its way across higher ground.

Getting steeper

Shallowing out

And this is a road, not a lane. I guess it was chosen partly because it stays so wide as it goes so high. Coming half-way through the stage, it’s unlikely to make much impact on the race – chances are a break (hopefully including a Brit, even a local, or two) will have formed, and the peloton will mind the gap before reeling it back for a bunch sprint to the Harrogate finish.

But what impact might the Tour’s passing through this part of the world have on cycling more generally? I love cycling’s continuing high profile. I try to keep it in perspective – for most people cycling continues to be mainly irrelevant – but after a lifetime spent loving something strange I’m starting to feel a bit more normal! Still, imagining we’re in the midst of ‘a cycling revolution’ is wishful thinking and for the Tour de France to have local impact on everyday life in the Yorkshire Dales – and so contribute to a nascent trend of ‘Britain embracing the bicycle’ – requires work. Revolutions never happen; they’re made.

Can almost 200 of the world’s strongest male cyclists passing over Butter Tubs help get Yorkshire cycling? Can the spectacle be turned to participation? And the participation not just of cycling enthusiasts drawn to Yorkshire’s hills and dales, however good that might be for the tourist economy, but also of local people going about their daily business? Put differently, can carbon-heavy cycling – for Le Tour is certainly that – be converted to carbon-neutral cycling? Because only cycling which replaces rather than adds to carbon-based travel will help move us towards sustainability; and no matter how many good things bringing Le Tour here might achieve, that’s – surely – what matters most.

The other side

From Butter Tubs the road drops into Swaledale; it’s steep with some tight corners, but remains wide and is surprisingly well surfaced (although it’ll probably need re-doing after another Yorkshire winter); unless it’s particularly wet and windy, the Tour carnival will hurtle down without a second thought.

Heading into Swaledale

You can’t talk about Yorkshire cycling without mentioning hills, wind and rain. Cosy in a car, you’re immune to all three, but on a bicycle it’s a different story. So is cycling here only for the fit and adventurous riding just for fun, never for ‘ordinary people’ doing ‘ordinary stuff’? Will Le Tour’s legacy be more ‘outsiders’ coming to ride in Yorkshire, while locals stay stuck fast in their cars?

Hay barns dotted prettily across its floor, upper Swaledale is gorgeous. Here I turn left – my route takes me to the top of the valley and the Cumbrian border on the wild and windswept Birkdale Common, but all the riders and the fuss will turn the other way, through Muker and Reeth, before crossing back to Wensleydale down at Leyburn.

Road sign

Yorkshire is talking of Le Tour. For people here there’s no escape. So what to make of it? In a place like Hawes cars are everywhere, and the people you occasionally see on bikes look much like me. The car enables life here to continue to be lived as it’s come – if only in quite recent times – to be lived; everyday life without a car has quickly become unthinkable. Is, then, re-thinking the bicycle as able to do some of the work which the car currently does in places such as this too big a challenge? If so, would that be a failure of cycling, or of our imaginations?

Welcome to Hawes

Yorkshire’s landscapes and people will next year add colour and character to the world’s biggest bike race. But how will the race leave Yorkshire? Essentially unchanged beyond a momentary tourist boom and a contribution to re-making the region as a cycling destination? Or can it leave a longer-lasting and more locally-relevant legacy, developing the region not just as a destination for, but also an origin of, cycling?

Typical Dales' main street

We’re seeing some money to get people living in cities cycling, and also visitors to national parks. For sure we need new thinking and ideas to help make it happen, but we could also now do with some money to help people who actually live and work in places like Yorkshire’s Dales cycle too. The 2014 Tour won’t by itself make much difference; but we can make it make a difference. So I suggest we find ways to use the Tour’s Yorkshire passing as an impetus to develop a rural cycling which doesn’t disappear once the race is gone, but survives locally and contributes to sustainability.

Tags: , , ,

13 Responses to “Butter Tubs”

  1. Dave Stevens Says:

    Yorkshire’s councils have begun to explore ways in which to make the legacy of next year’s Tour de France Grand Depart last into the future, with the idea raised of planning 10 years of events and campaigns that would see the area become a European capital of cycling.


    I think the key word here is begun

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Dave, I managed to miss that, and didn’t come across it in my (admittedly limited) research ahead of writing the piece. It’d be interesting to know about developments – I hope very much I’m wrong, but it looks to me like it could be a good intention that might unfortunately come to nowt.

      Personally I’d hope there would be a push towards 20 mph as the default speed limit in all of the Dales’ towns and villages, as well as a driver awareness campaign about the (completely legitimate) needs of people on bikes; it’d also be good to see cycling promotion projects based in/around the County’s rural schools.

      Given such arguments clearly matter, I also think – given the current and likely future importance of (cycle) tourism to the region – there’s an economic argument for broadly embedding a stronger pro-cycling sensibility in the local population, in that people with what for short-hand I’ll call good cycling literacy are more likely to provide services which attract and impress cycling visitors.

      But as well as watching to see what ‘the authorities’ come up with, wouldn’t it also be wonderful if concerned/enthusiastic local people took things into their own hands?

  2. Kaighin, Chris JF (NE) Says:

    Hi Dave

    Maybe the best way in which cycling could be more everyday in the Yorkshire Dales would be through the further proliferation of electric assisted bikes and luggage trailers. Friends of mine at Laurieston have them and they seem to have transformed their cycling. A shortish commute of 5 miles on up and down roads, that would previously been possible, but sometimes challenging and unappealing, has become everyday and straightforward. Carrying extra weight is no longer a drag, just more use of the battery. Might not be carbon neutral, but certainly a lot less carbon-heavy. The govt has subsidised electric vehicles, though differential VED and other incentives, why not do the same for electric bikes? For myself, I’m already thinking that there will come a time when I invest in one as an old man still wanting to do shopping by bike.


    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Cen, absolutely.

      (That said I’m fairly sure that quite a lot of ‘ordinary car trips’ in rural areas, such as the Dales, are really very short and so could very easily be undertaken on an unassisted bicycle; it’s just that a culture of car use for even the shortest journeys has taken root (probably more so than in bigger towns and cities, given that the general absence of congestion in rural areas forms less of a disincentive to drive); but this culture of car use as ordinary (and unproblematic) is not very good for people’s bodies, for local community cohesion (social capital), or for the aesthetics (including appeal to tourists) of the villages and towns – to me at least, Hawes’ main street resembles a hyperactive car park more than it does a pleasant place to pass the time of day; and that seems a pity.)

  3. Tom Cahill Says:

    I love the shot of the tree, indicating a strong and persistent wind coming from the left.

    I think, like Cen, that the electric bike is going to change things a lot. The batteries are going to get smaller and lighter and more powerful, almost certainly, since there are so many gadgets that use them and research is huge. I am getting to the point where in some few years, I will need an electric assist to climb some of the bigger hills in this area, and I don’t want to give up seeing them on the bike. Watch the electric space, I say.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Tom. Do people use them yet in/around Bedarieux? Also, do you reckon you would be accepted by other local riders if you tried to join, say a club ride, on an e-bike? I think the processes of their gradual incorporation into everyday life will be interesting, and (obviously I suppose, like any ‘new technology’) not entirely automatic. But yes, like you and Cen, they’ve entered into my imagination as something I’ll very probably one day use, in order to keep myself riding.

  4. Steve A Says:

    Excellent post, though I originally hoped you were going to tell us of a breakthrough in tubular tire technology based on the post title.

  5. ragtimecyclist Says:

    First thing to say is…my, that’s a nice looking Wilier bike you seem to be riding.

    You are dead right about the weather playing a part as the Tour climbs the Buttertubs – there is a small part of me praying for a screaming headwind and horizontal rain (see how THEY like it!). I presume they will leave Hawes with a nice slice of fruit cake topped with Wensleydale cheese anyway (de rigeur) so that should see them through.

    It’s still hard to picture the Tdf going through Yorkshire but judging by the Tour of Britain this year the crowds will be huge. I do wonder how the traditional gruff Yorkshire types will take to it (soigneur…? there’ll be no blokes ‘avin massages round here lad!)

  6. Kim (@kim_harding) Says:

    Carbon neutral cycle racing, now there is an interesting idea. Do you think we will ever see it? Oddly enough the first sport to go carbon neutral was Formula One motor racing, back in 1998…

  7. Oliver Fulton Says:

    I was cycling in midland Scotland recently – Clackmannanshire (which is a local government area) – and came across a couple of smallish rural roads, both I suspect used as car ‘rat-runs’ at commuting times, which had speed limits (20 for a lane-with-passing-places, 40 (a bit high!) for a narrow two-lane road). Both were announced by large signs labelling them ‘cycle friendly road’ or ‘pedestrian and cycle friendly road’ (there’s a photo at http://www.clacksweb.org.uk/transport/cycling/).

    I have mixed feelings about this: all roads, especially ones like this, should be cycle friendly by definition, and it kind of implies that any road which is NOT labelled is fair game for speeding cars. But as a high-visibility reminder, and hopefully a genuine safety improvement, it’s a bit more positive and prominent than one of those warning triangles which feel like they’re treating cyclists as one more ‘hazard’ to motorists. I agree it would be great to have speed limits in towns like Hawes, but as an aging cyclist – contemplating electric bikes with increasing urgency – I feel much more vulnerable outside towns than in them. How about a lot of ‘cycle friendly’ roads in the Dales, including main A roads??

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much for those observations and thoughts – and link to the photo – Oliver, much appreciated. I share your mixed feelings and would also add that signs such as these by themselves – although perhaps a start – just aren’t enough (will those speed limits be policed?). I agree also about the warning triangles with a picture of a bicycle, and hope one day the Department for Transport will realise how absurd those are, and consign them to history. As you suggest, perhaps in their place we should have speed limits which assume (an assumption which is a strong policy aspiration) people walking and cycling will be encountered and should be treated respectfully; this could be combined with mass media-based educational campaigns explaining to motorists how patience, ample space and slowing down is required of them when passing people walking and cycling, as well as those on horses (and this is even more important on A roads, rather than applying most (or only) to those roads and lanes on which motorists are already likely to be travelling more slowly and carefully).

      As you probably know, a few years ago there was a, somewhat similar (but probably less effective, because it didn’t explain to motorists how they should change their driving behaviours), ‘Quiet Lanes’ scheme, which saw signs erected at the gateways to certain roads around the Forest of Bowland (for example the lane between Slaidburn and Bentham over Cross o’Greet, and some of the little lanes around Chipping); but those signs are gradually disappearing. Again, the intention – perhaps influenced by some European funding scheme – was almost certainly good; but it was a scheme that was easy to implement, because those lanes are already quiet and civilised places to cycle (and walk, horse-ride); so again a scheme delivering too little, and likely with only very minimal – if any – positive effect.

      There’s a need for much bolder, clearer action. It’s too easy to introduce schemes which will change nothing; and much harder to introduce ones which will actually influence behaviour. But I suspect all road users would appreciate money being spent in ways which actually make a difference, and send clear, unambiguous signals about the kind of transport environment we should all, collectively be contributing to.

      With Yorkshire at the centre of the cycling world over the next 9 months, now is certainly the time for relevant authorities to act, and produce a hugely beneficial impact that can be felt before, during and long after Le Tour. And yes, especially somewhere like Yorkshire, where many A roads tend to follow valleys and form essential cycling routes, that must include A roads – the future (and places which follow their lead) would only be thankful. I’m pleased and reassured that at least some people involved in the Tour’s first two stages next year seem to be following and reading these kinds of discussions, so let’s keep our fingers’ crossed!

      Thanks very much for reading!
      Best wishes

  8. Bill Oldroyd Says:

    The Local TV News was reporting that the cost of fuel in Hawes will possibly be reduced by a 5p per litre government subsidy !.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Bill. We’re still really stuck in this ‘fuel prices are too high’ discourse, aren’t we? I realise fuel prices hit people and communities differentially, so there are important social justice arguments to consider, but I think the debate would be so much more sensible and productive if we could shift more clearly towards a ‘how do we adapt our lives to the inevitability of high and increasing fuel prices’ discourse, and perhaps (he says ambitiously!) even a ‘how might high fuel prices provide new opportunities to think and do things differently?’ discourse. Shift the discourse and cycling immediately becomes much more clearly an important part of the future. Although simply moaning about the high costs of heating and driving is I think part of the problem, not the solution, I also think that’s so obvious that – people not being inherently daft – we’ll surely get there in the end ….?
      Thanks for reading and chipping in – much appreciated.
      Best wishes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: