Posts Tagged ‘Forest of Bowland’

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.

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

Longer Days

April 22, 2013

Setting sun

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

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

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

Long shadow

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

Forest of Bowland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Springtime evening sunshine

Wind Power

January 26, 2013

Wind turbine

Wind farms and bicycles – two technologies appropriate to a sane, sustainable future. But more than that, they’re symbolic of that future; there are surely no objects better symbolising the age towards which we’re moving, too slowly, but surely. For me the aesthetics of technology is ethical. I love wind turbines like I love bicycles because they’re good, pointing in the right direction.

Bicycle and wind turbine

Of course I know both bicycles and wind farms are hugely, strangely controversial. They’re sometimes ridiculed, but it feels like both are gradually becoming accepted as necessary. And though not nearly enough, both are proliferating – wind turbines off our coasts and over our hills, and bicycles … well, where exactly? A Parliamentary Inquiry is currently investigating how to get Britain cycling. Pay attention to our London-centric media and you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re on the brink of ‘a cycling revolution’. Use of the bicycle is probably rising across some towns and cities, yet so slowly it’s barely a trickle.

My own hunch is that bicycles are proliferating most in people’s imaginations and aspirations. For many Brits their status has upped a notch, and the idea of cycling is less outlandish than it was a year or so ago. And cycling has moved a tiny bit further towards the centre of our collective cultural ideals of good lives and good cities. There’s a zeitgeist to convert, and we’re waiting for politicians to convert it, because the main changes necessary to get Britain cycling must be made at national level with huge reallocation of resources away from the car and towards the bicycle.

Lancaster Cathedral and Town Hall

It’s because I love cycling that I’m involved in debates about cycling’s future, but it’s because I love riding that I’ve some immunity from the emotional roller coaster that involvement in those debates can bring. Sure, I’d like everyone to have cycling in their lives, but at least in the meantime I can enjoy having it in mine.

But I’ve still no road bike. It’s still cold and icy. My world has shrunk. I’m feeling hemmed in. Parts of north Lancashire and Cumbria close to the coast are clear of snow, but the world a short way inland remains white. Unable to go farther afield, today I jumped on my mountain bike to explore little known places close to home. I’ve lived and cycled here 15 years, but there remain roads and tracks within ten miles I’ve rarely been.

I rode east across the city, up past the Town Hall and Cathedral, up past Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, up over the M6 and onto the Forest of Bowland’s north-westerly fringe as it falls unevenly towards the River Lune. (There is no forest by the way – the Forest of Bowland is in fact a vast moorland.)

Ashton Memorial, Williamson Park

Right onto Little Fell Road, then down Stock-a-Bank towards Littledale. Past Baines Cragg and sharply down to Artle Beck. When my kids were tiny and driving me crazy, these lanes – quiet yet close – formed my escape route; an hour away from the house, out here, would lift my spirits and send me home closer to sanity

Ahead the wind turbines’ slowly rotating blades strike brilliant white in the low winter sun. Their slim white lines have the elegance of the egrets we sometimes see at Leighton Moss, a short way north on Morecambe Bay. Depending on my position the turbines seem sometimes close, at others distant. Sometimes they take me by surprise, their blades appearing suddenly above, disturbing the point at which land and sky meet. I love riding this compact, complex topography.

Wind turbine blade

To reach the wind farm I drop down almost to Brookhouse before climbing up again on a lane I’ve not taken in years. It rises steadily to Caton Moor, the wind farm all the while drawing closer. Up here the drifted snow is deep in places.

Wind turbine blades

Sheep with wind turbines

This was one of the UK’s first commercial wind farms. When it came into service back in 1994 it produced 11% of the UK’s total wind energy. Wind technologies have developed fast, and in 2005 its original ten turbines were replaced with the current eight. Their combined capacity is 16 MW, enough energy to power 10,000 homes.

Wind turbines in the snow

I ride reverentially between the white giants standing in the snow. They’re so high (55 metres) they make me and my bike feel puny. Standing next to one I turn my head to see its blades (35 metres long) tumbling one at a time down from the sky toward me. It’s like staring into the heights of a great cathedral, but better. I feel giddy, overawed.

Wind turbine from below

Cyclists know the wind’s power. We feel its pull and push. When it lends a hand the world seems easier. When it’s in our faces we hunker down and push harder. We know its noise too – the way it roars, at times so loud it’s hard to hear the words of the person riding beside you. Where would cycling be without wind?

A bridleway follows Kirkby Gill off the moor down to the Lune. Where it’s not covered with ice its surface is full of brick. I drop out of the snow and under the aerial ropeway which until recently took clay from the pits above to Claughton brickworks below. Just before Claughton a little track goes east through Farleton where I join the main road.

Iced bridleway

Out of the snow

I follow the Lune downstream to home. I’m glad to have been forced into this little ride, but I’m a coiled spring waiting for my road bike and milder weather to return so my corner of the cycling world can open up again. It’s snowing now, as I write, but a thaw is on the way.

The River Lune

New Day Riding

January 11, 2013

New day ridng

Winter riding’s full of pleasures. For me one of the greatest is the proximity of daybreak. Far more easily than in other seasons, you can leave the house in darkness, ride into and through the dawn, and out its other side. It’s just another ride, but also an adventure. I know it’s probably not for everyone, but nonetheless it’s an experience I highly recommend.

This morning I left the house before seven. This early I like to ride through the still sleeping city centre. It’s almost empty of people, and those around don’t seem to mind the solitary cyclist.

Lancaster rises quickly and steeply to the east. The climbing starts at the Town Hall on Dalton Square. Going this way makes a hard start to a ride; sometimes it feels too hard, but it’s somehow more inviting when the streets are quiet, dark and cold; taking this road, spinning a low gear, warms you up nicely.

I start climbing to the sound of people scraping ice from car windscreens. It’s turned decidedly cold the last few days. A few minutes later I’m out of town, passing under the M6, already busy with traffic. This time of day in this part of the world most people are travelling north/south; few are going my way. The air’s so still the motorway’s noise stays with me for a long time as I climb higher. The road undulates its way south-east, the crescent moon bobbing on my horizon to the south as I go.

Before dawn

The road drops steeply down Quernmore Valley. At the bottom the climb to Jubilee Tower begins. From Quernmore crossroads the road really ramps up, leaving the village and valley behind, set almost straight for the moors. Just five miles from the city’s centre at the Tower I’m already 300 metres high.

East through the Trough of Bowland. The trees began as shadows in the dark but are gradually becoming more deeply etched against the steadily lightening sky. By Dunsop Bridge I no longer need my lamp to light the road ahead. Gulls swirl and starlings swarm above the fields of the Hodder Valley.

Gradually becoming clearer

By Slaidburn, twenty miles into my ride, the sky is clear, the sun has finally crept above the horizon, and the day feels properly broken. Of course it’s still early on a mid-winter’s day but the contrast with my departure in darkness an hour and a half earlier makes me feel I’ve reached a place of comfort and ease. Sunshine makes the riding easier.

Day break

Getting close to trees is the biggest winter cycling pleasure for me. I love to see their shapes, skeletons, limbs unclothed by leaves. A de-cluttering of the landscape under the dark and cold renders their naked forms majestic. They stand strong and proud. I find them impossible to ignore; though other things inevitably get in the way I fix my gaze on one, then – as I move past – find another, solo winter riding a joyful procession between magnificent trees, standing sentinel over the sleeping land.

At Slaidburn there’s ice on the Croasdale Brook Bridge, and my tyres slip twice as I start the climb to the Cross. The low January sun at my back lends a golden hue to Bowland’s fells. With the sunshine, lack of wind, and my body warming with the climb, it’s stopped feeling like a mid-winter’s ride.

Riding to the Cross

Over 400 metres up at the Cross o’Greet I’m well above the fog now filling the valleys whichever way I look. The top of Ingleborough away to the north looks for all the world like an island of its own. I drop down towards Bentham, then turn west along Mewith Lane towards Wray. The fog thickens and the temperature drops. By closing off my wider view, the fog forces awareness and appreciation of the immediate. The broader environment out of the way, I feel more intimately placed as I pass. I’m the moving centre of a clear pocket of air with perhaps a twenty metre radius. Moisture drips as I pass below the trees lining the River Hindburn which I follow into Wray; as the fog’s thickened they’ve become ghosts. It’s so still I hear approaching vehicles, but hope their drivers see my penetrating lights long before me. It could feel claustrophobic were it not to feel so eerily beautiful and special.


Over the Hindburn before Wray and the Wenning before Hornby. There I turn north to cross the Lune at the only point possible between Halton six miles to the south and Kirkby Lonsdale eight miles to the north. The fog holds its height and I drop in and out of it as I cross the folds and furls of the Lune’s north side. By the turn off to Aughton I know it’s downhill or flat almost all the way home and I back off slightly, starting quietly to savour the gentle satisfaction of another ride almost done.

Back in fog-bound Lancaster, I can hardly believe only a few hours ago I set off in darkness, to ride through and out of the breaking day and into glorious sunshine. Like most rides my memory of this one will quickly dim. Nevertheless they accumulate, these rides, eh?

The Green Jersey Cafe

February 27, 2012

Winter’s ending. It’s doing so uncertainly, as it always does, but there’s now sometimes warmth to the sun and daily the days grow longer.

I’ll be able to appreciate one of my deep loves of winter cycling – naked trees – for some time yet, but signs of spring – such as the snowdrops – are emerging elsewhere.

Over the last couple of months the highest roads in this corner of the world have often been too treacherous to tackle. While down below there might be none, climb above a few hundred metres and there can be ice, sometimes in sheets across the road where the rain running off the moors has temporarily frozen to a halt.

So last week’s mild spell saw me raise my cycling horizon and ride over Cross o’Greet for the first time in a while. At 427 metres you pass – if heading south – from the Yorkshire Dales into the Forest of Bowland. At Slaidburn I typically turn west, returning to Lancaster through the Trough of Bowland, but last week I continued another ten miles south to Clitheroe, a place which – despite being little more than 30 miles distant – I’m ashamed to say I’d never been before. I wanted to visit The Green Jersey cafe, which has just opened there.

The cafe’s situated in the town but also right at the foot of Pendle Hill, classic cycling country. A big group of riders was just leaving as I arrived at midday. Richard, the owner, isn’t serving food during the week, and only cakes at weekends – but he’ll look to change that if the demand is there. I think it might be. In the meantime, he’s serving damn fine coffee and you can top up on flapjacks, energy bars and gels, and help yourself to bananas in exchange for a deposit in the honesty box.

It’s these little touches which make The Green Jersey feel such a treat: a collection of classy cycling books and magazines spread across the long central table, to browse as you relax; the knowledge that you’re being served by a fellow cyclist, so filling up your water bottle isn’t going to be a problem, that there are spares should you need them. If you will forgive my being momentarily sociological, it’s a place where one’s cycling identity can be announced and is appreciated and affirmed rather than – as can sometimes happen – merely tolerated.

I recognised Richard – he ran a bike shop in Lancaster a few years back. He’s a man who lives and breathes the cycle trade and he knows how it’s changing. Small bike shops are struggling to compete with the big on-line retailers, and they need to offer something different. A place to visit during a ride, or a base from which to start a ride, is an obvious response. The Green Jersey is not just a bike shop, and it’s not just a cafe. It’s both, and much more, and potentially even more than that (by which I mean that such places will become in part what we as their customers choose to make (of) them). Richard has an admirable spirit of adventure and openness to the possibilities ahead. He has plans for courses and events – anything, I think, which simultaneously gives him business whilst responding to potential needs and desires out there. He wants it to be a place which matters to people locally, as well as a place which draws in people from further afield. The place has a cycling ethos. Such places are helping to make cycling happen, and they need cycling to happen to help them thrive. Richard is an entrepreneur, betting on cycling’s growth. Such entrepreneurship creates the conditions through which cycling can grow.

The Green Jersey is less a shop or cafe than a venue; its ethos is I think similar to that behind Look Mum No Hands in London; it’s an ethos which – as Richard himself noted – Mud Dock pioneered, many years ago now, in Bristol. Such places  are ‘cycling hubs’ – places to cycle, to watch cycling, to talk cycling, to acquire cycling, to learn cycling – to do all the kinds of work which are required to move cycling to a place of greater centrality, both in our own lives, and also in our culture as a whole.

The Green Jersey was officially opened by the President of British Cycling Brian Cookson, and by cycling legend Graeme Obree just a few weeks ago (not bad friends to have, eh?!) It’s a really super place, a splendid place to break, or start/finish a ride, and I wish Richard and all concerned all the very best. I’ll certainly be returning, and other local businesses please take note, it’s put Clitheroe firmly on my map as a lovely place full of character and worthy of a longer visit.

For those of us committed to transitioning our world towards low-carbon and convivial, human-scaled sustainability, we need a broad and deep bicycle system. As such, any place which is hospitable to bicycles, cycling and cyclists not only deserves but actually demands our support. Come on, there’s no better justification for a coffee and a flick of the latest issue of Rouleur!

Is there something about rising expectations and surging ambitions associated with this time of year – the tentative end of winter making way for the slow dawn of spring? Certainly, there’s real optimism in the air for British cycling – it’s apparent in the immediate response to The Times’ ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign, in last week’s Parliamentary debate on cycling and its future, and in London Cycling Campaign’s current ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign; it’s apparent too, in patriotic (but not I think parochial) hopes for major British success in cycle sport – not just at the Olympics but also at the Tour, and just maybe the Classics too.

This ‘optimistic, spring is in the air’ feel is also apparent locally. An event  marking the arrival of the ‘road racing year’ in this part of the world is the Coal Road Challenge, organised by Lune Racing Cycling Club. It took place yesterday, another mild and slightly damp day. It’s a super ride into the Yorkshire Dales: out through Wray, the Benthams and Ingleton; up past Chapel-le-Dale and Ribblehead to  Newby Head Moss and then down into Hawes; west to Garsdale Head and the long hard climb over to Dentdale via ‘the Coal Road’, which reaches 537 metres; and then the Dent cobbles and the stiff climb over to Barbondale before the final ‘home run’ west along Lunesdale.

The Coal Road Challenge is what is still sometimes called a ‘reliability trial’ – an early season test of fitness and equipment in preparation for the racing season. It was certainly the hardest ride I’ve done so far this year – initially riding as part of a big group, then solo as the group fragmented in the face of the climbs, and towards the end trying to share a faster pace with a guy (Steve, I found out later) from the Lune. (I covered the hilly 67 miles in just over 4 hours – I’d have been very happy with this, were it not for the fact that throughout the day I also witnessed how much stronger and faster than me are so many other riders!)

There were far more people riding than I’d expected. This big turn out is I think a sign of cycling’s continuing renaissance here. Whilst London is getting the lion’s share of attention, there are positive signs for cycling elsewhere, including up here in England’s north-west. Wherever we are, let’s work towards a truly great year for cycling.

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!

In praise of the cafe

February 4, 2011

What would we do were not the countryside dotted with welcoming places of food and drink? For the cyclist, the cafe’s a crucial resource, it enables us to ride, it makes our rides.

The cafe has today become for many people – people who arrive by car – a destination, a place to which they travel in order to go there. This isn’t so for the cyclist, who goes to a cafe in order to go for a ride; for the cyclist the cafe is a resource, not a destination.

And doesn’t that make the cafe so much better! The cafe matters so much more to us.

At this time of year, building the miles and my legs, I wouldn’t make some of the rides I make were it not for the cafe. Yesterday, for example, I set out from Lancaster, over Jubilee Tower and through the Trough of Bowland. At Dunsop Bridge I knew a decision had to be made – either turn right to struggle into the wind to Chipping and then fly north to home, or else a longer, harder route – left with the wind to Slaidburn, up over Bowland Knotts towards Clapham, and finish with a 15 mile push west into the still strengthening wind.

I took the  harder option, thanks to the cafe.

A few months from now, when I hope I’m fitter, stronger and leaner, I’ll not depend on them in quite the same way, though still they’ll have their uses. But for now, the cafe acts as both insurance and hospice. Confidence in making my rides gradually longer and harder comes from knowing there are cafes en route. I might not use them, but should I want to or need to, they’ll be there.

The cafe also breaks up these pre-season rides into more manageable chunks. My mileage dropped dramatically in the tail-end of last year, the snow and ice meaning I did no long rides at all through December. But a couple of weeks ago I learned I’d got a place in this year’s Fred Whitton Challenge. So over the next three months I must teach my body to ride more-or-less non-stop for 112 miles over all the Lakeland passes, the double-whammy of Hardknott and Wrynose Passes coming when I’ll already have 100 hard miles in my legs.

Last week I followed a 78 mile route along which I’d identified four potential cafe stops, at Ingleton (18 miles), Hawes (36 miles), Sedbergh (51 miles) and Kirkby Lonsdale (62 miles). Two months from now I’ll aim to use none of them, but last week I used two; after 36 miles into an icy head-wind I was ready for beans on toast at the Penny Garth Cafe in Hawes, and partly because it’s such a quick and easy stop I sank a mug of tea whilst eating my flapjack outside the caravan-cafe on Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale – both those places have stronger cultural allegiances with motorcycling, but they’re supremely useful and welcoming to the tired and/or hungry cyclist too.

Yesterday I almost rode on at Slaidburn, twenty miles in, but with the climb to Bowland Knotts at 422 metres just ahead, I decided instead to be cautious and replenish myself with a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast at the Riverbank Tea Rooms. What joy to sit outside in the sunshine, on 3rd February in the north of England! And what privilege to make such places meaningful to both ourselves and cycling by enrolling them into our rides, into our biographies, into the history of cycling itself.

A few times recently, and again yesterday, I’ve found myself approaching Wray – about 10 miles east of Lancaster – at lunchtime. And I seem to have struck a deal with myself – I stop for a quick lunch (the soup is always quick, and delicious) at Bridge House Farm, so long as afterwards I ride back to Lancaster the harder and longer way, on the north side of the River Lune.

The cafe is a building block in our cycling lives. We use the cafe in different ways at different times. But cyclists don’t just go to the cafe, cyclists have need for the cafe. The cafe is central to the cycling experience, and for that I think it ought to be praised.

Cycling champion!

September 15, 2010

Warning, this post is written by a proud Dad – if you’re prone to nausea at parents singing the praises of their kids and/or dwelling in the thrill of parenthood, you might just want to skip it ….

I love being a parent. It happened by accident, to be honest. It’s ten years ago now, when we found out Bobby was on his way (Sue had been feeling a bit strange on and off through our fortnight’s cycle-tour of the Pyrenees, and especially on the long ascent of Tourmalet …), and back then I felt completely unable to predict how I would find it. It’s still an open-ended adventure, of course; but wow, on a day-to-day level it’s great, and then – just occasionally – it’s absolutely sublime. And this weekend was absolutely sublime.

The opening stage of the Tour of Britain was due to pass through the Trough of Bowland and over Jubilee Tower on Saturday. That’s our cycling backyard, but it’s a backyard that our kids – because we don’t own a car and very rarely travel in one – have barely seen. I ride beyond the city limits regularly, and Sue fairly often, so Bobby and Flo hear about places like the Trough of Bowland and Jubilee Tower, but those names don’t mean that much to them – or so I thought. Actually, I know now that those names are lodged into my son Bobby’s nine-year old imagination, and that the thrill he felt at actually being able to ride and experience them for himself was just immense …

After our recent holiday in France, Bobby had 300 touring miles in his legs. Out there, he’d also proven himself a very adept rider; he handled his bike well, was able to concentrate for relatively long periods in the saddle, and road calmly and competently when occasionally we encountered busy roads, full of fast-moving motorised traffic. This gave us confidence that he was ready to ride more seriously on our local roads. Perhaps our biggest reservation was the severity of the climbs around Lancaster – it’d be impossible to go anywhere Bobby hadn’t already been without tackling some pretty fierce gradients. Although he’d coped with some hills around the Dordogne, they were nowhere near as relentless and steep as those found in our local cycling country.

There’s a buzz about watching professional bike riders on your own roads, and we’re lucky in that in recent years the Tour of Britain has passed regularly along ours. The last couple of years it’s come through on a school day, and Sue and I have ridden out without the kids to catch it. But this year it was coming on a Saturday, which meant that Bobby could come along too. We considered how best to turn the experience into a little adventure, and I booked Bobby and myself into Slaidburn youth hostel on Friday night. Straight after school we’d ride the 24 miles out there, through the Trough, have dinner at the super village pub, The Hark to Bounty, stay overnight, then ride back to the Trough to watch the pro peloton ride through on Saturday, before continuing back home over Jubilee Tower. I was a bit apprehensive about how Bobby would cope with the hills, and the absence of child-friendly distractions along the way, but I also figured that even if we had to walk all of the tougher sections, we could still make it before nightfall.

You just don’t know until you give things a go, do you? But I know now that I needn’t have worried, and that Bobby is a stronger and more feisty little fella than either Sue or I had ever imagined.

We got lucky with the weather; it stopped raining as we left home and started again as we tucked our bikes into the youth hostel’s cycle shed at Slaidburn three hours later. But Bobby moved through the hill country of north Lancashire with such ease and grace that I wonder if those first two weeks of his pre-natal life spent cycling the high Pyrenean cols haven’t somehow found their way into his legs and lungs, and given him a cycling soul (though I take nothing-for-granted here, and for now his love of football seems stronger than his love for cycling). The first four miles we followed the route of my commute, to Lancaster University. Then we traced the back road through Ellel to Galgate; only there do you really start to feel like you’re on the lanes; my lanes; our lanes …

The riding gets more hilly as you move towards the dark bulk of the Forest of Bowland, but Bob rose out of his saddle with the land – he can stand on the pedals for minutes at a time; he never seems to tire of doing so. He wasn’t at all fazed by the wall of tarmac which greets you on what – following our friend Tom Cahill – we call ‘The Duke’s Road’ to Marshaw; it’s short, but the gradient must exceed 1 in 4. And he danced his way up the easy side of the Trough, where I showed him the memorial plaque to Bill Bradley, winner of the Tour of Britain in 1959 and 1960. Here he is at the top …

But if Bobby excelled at the cycling, his interests and priorities seemed elsewhere. The highlight of his trip was rescuing a frog off the road which runs over the River Wyre at Street. When we got to Slaidburn he wanted to call Mum and list the creatures we’d spotted along the way – not just the frog, but a sparrowhawk, a hare, countless rabbits and a black cat. All along the way he was keeping a list of the things he’d seen. Initially I thought this odd, but when I quizzed him he told me he was relaxed about the cycling, and confident about tackling the climbs, because Sue and I believed that he could do it, so he believed he could do it too. The big deal for Bobby was not the cycling, but the world which cycling was opening up to him. At times I watched him riding in front of me, getting blown by the wind as he made his way across the moors, and it almost blew my head away – the vicarious sense of what he must be experiencing; how he was encountering with all his senses this magnificent world by bike which I tend so often to take for granted. The adventure for Bob was less in the turning of the pedals, than in the world which his pedalling was bringing about.

The biggest test of the trip would undoubtedly be the following day, tackling the Trough from the south-east, the hard side. We rode out of Slaidburn on the back road to Newton, a road I’d never taken before and which will forever now be for me ‘Bobby’s road’, and then onto Dunsop Bridge, where we stopped for coffee, hot chocolate and to feed the ducks. Sue and I have ridden past the Dunsop Bridge ducks so many times and said to one another how much Bobby and Flo would enjoy them – often they waddle their ways across the road, or simply sit in it, holding up the cars – so that drivers must emerge and ‘shooo’ them out of their way. And here, finally, was Bobby’s introduction to the Dunsop ducks; we bought a bag of duck food from Puddleducks and out on the village green, and much to his delight, he was quickly surrounded; the pure and simple joys of childhood ….

At Dunsop Bridge we began to feel ourselves to be participating in ‘an event’. People were converging, many by bike, and moving towards the Trough. We moved with them. As we approached the beginnings of the climb Sue appeared from the other direction; she’d ridden out from Lancaster to meet us. Together then, we headed onto the hill. We were careful to keep Bobby’s expectations in check – this is one tough climb; it reduces many people to pushing their machines. People already lined the road, and as they saw Bobby approach many of them began to cheer him on. I saw his resolve set in. We’d intended to stop half-way up, to find a spot from which to watch the pros, but I could see that Bob wanted to do the climb. How I loved that – to see in my own son that pure appetite to ride a hill, to rise to its challenge so that the world falls away and it becomes just you and the road, with as the only end the point at which the up becomes down. As the road ramped up he rose to it. I burbled the inanities I burble to myself when I’m in that fight – “keep it going”, “focus on your front wheel, don’t look up just yet”, “stay calm, keep your breathing under control”; but I don’t think he needed them – he was in his own zone. And he just kept on and on, and I was as astonished as many of those standing at the side of the road seemed to be, that this slight nine year old lad, on such a little bike, was successfully climbing the hard side of the Trough …

We returned to the steepest section of the climb to watch the riders come through. Friends were among the many people continuing to arrive – first Jules and his daughters Anya and Mia, and then Hayden, Jim and Reuben – and together we shared the very specific and very intense enjoyment which comes from anticipating the peloton about to pass you by. Then, suddenly they were upon us – first a breakaway of three riders, Richie Porte and Wout Poels, with Jack Bauer struggling on the gradient to stay in touch with them. We cheered them on. A few minutes passed and someone shouted that the peloton was at the foot of the climb. I looked down to the valley’s bottom, and there – what a feeling!

Not a view but a feeling … I could call it a religious experience … it filled me with awe. The peloton filled the valley – our valley, one we know well, was suddenly full of men who ride bikes for a living. From where we stood, high above them, they looked almost static, though we knew they were moving faster across that ground than we ever will. To witness such a thing provokes a very special sensation in me … I suppose other people feel that way when they see a cathedral, or a work of art, but I never have been so moved by those things. But a bunch of cyclists – it’s less than a moment, but it etches deep into my being. Sacred …

Then they were upon us, point blank, moving so fast it took our collective breath away.

And in an instant they were gone. The event had moved up the road, leaving us behind, with our little moments, tiny fragments of sensations and memories. The bike race had punctured our everyday cycling lives, which are different now, as are the roads on which we will continue to ride.

We set off home via Jubilee Tower, another place about which Bobby had heard us talk but to which he had never before been. He wanted to cycle up Jubilee Tower. We approached from the moor side, the easy way. One day soon, now we know what he can do, we’ll tackle it the hard way, from Lancaster. He was chuffed to bits to reach the top of the climb, and then to climb up the Tower itself. Through his cycling he had won views, of the bay and of the hills, which he hadn’t known existed; he could see his home from another perspective.

Whatever the conclusion, another chapter in Bobby’s cycling journey has begun. I’m not so sure about Bobby, but Sue and I are thrilled.

Tour of Britain

September 17, 2009

There are lots of people bunking off work this week, to catch a stage of the Tour of Britain. Tuesday was our turn. I dropped Bobby and Flo at school, then rode with John Krug up Jubilee Tower and through the Trough of Bowland to Slaidburn, where we started the tough climb up to Cross o’Greet, the spot we’d selected as the best place to watch the pro peloton pass by.

Jim Rose should have been with us, but he’d taken a spill riding along the shore of Coniston at the weekend, and was recovering from an operaton to determine the extent of the damage done to his hand. The news is it’s not too bad. Get well, and back on your bike, soon Jim.

John was on a bike he’s recently assembled, based around a Hewitt frame. It looks really beautiful, and seems to ride equally well. We’d only got home from a 60 mile ride around Kingsdale, Dentdale and Barbondale after midnight, so our legs groaned under the climb, but we reached the top ahead of the professionals, and installed ourselves alongside Sue and Tom Bone (not his real surname, but he plays the trombone, so that’s what we call him) who’d left Lancaster half an hour before us.

It was a glorious day, blue skies and sun shine, hanging out with other cyclists, and watching the pros come through – Nicholas Roche in a 3 man break, Bradley Wiggins comfortable in the bunch, Rob Hayles struggling (a result of a crash earlier in the race) off the back. Then suddenly over, and hordes of cyclists descending together off the fells – an utterly beautiful sight, and experience.

Watching the Tour of Britain pass along your local roads isn’t really about watching the Tour of Britain – it’s an excuse for a ride, a chance to re-affirm your sense of yourself as a bike rider, and to participate in a communal activity. I might say that ‘I’m doing my bit to support the sport’, but I also know that I’m supporting myself as someone who cycles, and continuing the everyday process of becoming who I’d like to be. It gives us a different, less ordinary, reason to get out there and ride.

That said, the professionals are magnificent. The speed they rode past us! And knowing they’ve ridden your roads changes your cycling scape. Earlier this year I rode the cobbled climbs of the Tour of Flanders – struggling up the Koppenberg, I could feel the weight of cycling history (after all, every rider who matters in the history of cycle sport has ridden that climb) pushing me up. Spine tingling stuff!

We descended to Wray for a lovely September lunch, basking outside with cyclists from elsewhere in the sunshine. At Bridge House Cafe they weren’t prepared for the sudden arrival of so many cyclists, and unsurprisingly ran out of baked beans! (Someone was sent down to the little local shop for more.)