Posts Tagged ‘hills’

Kirkstone Pass

July 23, 2013

Kirkstone Foot

Do you ever get the urge to spend a whole day by bike? For me it starts as a vague sensation but builds gradually into an itch that’s difficult to ignore. The older I get, the longer I’ve ridden, the more seriously I take it. It feels instinctive but I’m sure it’s not, it’s a habit I’ve developed – this occasional need for being all day on a bike. It’s not about training, almost the opposite – more like therapy; a form of meditation I suppose. The urge usually finds form in a specific ride idea through reading and chatting with others, and through a cycling imagination which – once the promise of a long ride takes hold – excels at the blend of map-based research and daydreaming required to make it happen.

So that’s how come I headed out early the other morning, for a day long ride.

Setting out

I took my favourite route to Sedbergh, my tyres sticking to the sap through the littlest of the overhung lanes, bursting with foliage and grass running up them. But one of the best things about longer rides is how they move you beyond your ordinary territory: villages, lanes, buildings, views become steadily less familiar until, finally – the confidence of a map in your pocket – you reach fresh ground.

This transition towards unfamiliarity begins thirty miles in. It’s years since I last followed the long, lonely, lovely lane– an old Roman Road – north from Sedbergh along the Lune; taking the Howgills’ western side, it stays high but cuts sharp down and up across each beck as it falls from the fells.

But finally all routes big and small are funnelled through the Lune’s gorge near Tebay and run parallel north until at Low Borrowbridge mine is forced underneath the M6 and West Coast mainline to their other sides. It’s strange, being so close yet feeling so removed from people inside the trains, trucks and cars; we’re differentially speeding in the same direction, parallel, but I feel out of time. And invisible – I’m so hidden on these tiny lanes they must be oblivious to me; cycling silently present but outside the mainstream.

The Lune’s highest reaches lie east of Tebay but I keep north. Back home I’d seen on the map a lane running between the north- and south-bound carriageways of the M6 for a couple of miles, along the 250 metre contour, and of course I want to ride it – a central reservation slow lane crammed full of moorland birds, sheep and a solitary cyclist. I’m sure it often feels wild and windswept, but today it’s wonderful.

Central reservation

The other side of the watershed, the lanes from Shap to Pooley Bridge are bliss; smooth, fast and largely traffic-free. Pooley Bridge is the northernmost point of Ullswater, and also of my ride, and back in the planning, it’s this next stretch which had particularly fired my imagination – to pedal Ullswater’s length before climbing out its valley over Kirkstone Pass.

Ullswater’s shoreside road is busy with cars, throwing into stark relief the car-free lanes I’ve enjoyed so far. But by now I’m so far into my own zone they don’t much bother me, even the few which get too close; on longer meditative rides like this, by distracting my focus cars actually help restore it, becoming a resource to deepen rather than destroy my cycling experience. Besides, the views down and across Ullswater to Cumbria’s finest fells are stunning.


I ride through the village of Glenridding to the lake’s southern end, then past Patterdale, Hartshop and Brothers Water to the inn at Kirkstonefoot where, as its name suggests, Kirkstone Pass properly begins. Suddenly most of the cars are gone. Ahead the road climbs south into the distance and I move inextricably, inevitably into that priceless zone where the world gets temporarily reduced to just you slowly moving upwards through turning pedals. (The longer we’re ‘forced’ to inhabit this zone the more ‘classic’ is the climb.)

Kirkstone Pass 1

It’s the highest pass in the Lakes, but Kirkstone is not too difficult a climb, and it’s a satisfying one. Going the other way the views down over Ullswater and its surrounding fells are incredible; this way it’s the straight line taken between the cosiness of lake, village and pasture up to the high fells which makes it special.

Kirkstone Pass 2

And then the apex, the glorious bit of road at the end of a long climb which precedes the magic moment when up turns finally to down. There are many things I’ll never experience, but to think in a life lived differently this could have been one …

When up turns to down

I crouch into the bike and hurtle down Troutbeck. The day’s hardest riding is done now, and from Staveley I’ll be homeward bound on familiar lanes, much like this morning’s largely devoid of cars, just made for bikes.

Close to home

Do long rides like this much matter? For me a day in the saddle is simultaneously a day off, a day free from care. There’s a tendency to see cycling as hard work, but it’s equally possible to see it as taking it easy. I suppose some people laze on beaches or go to spas for their rejuvenation. Me, so long as I can remember, I’ve rejuvenated by being on a bike. Also, the longer I live and ride in north-west England, the more I seem to invite it to inform and shape my biography. The more places I ride and reach by bike, I suppose, the more personally meaningful they become. So being all day on a bike extends and deepens my sense of home.

In a sustainable world I suppose I think both these things matter.

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

Yorkshire Dales

February 25, 2013

Cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

We spent the half-term holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. We began by taking the train to Giggleswick near Settle. Travelling off-peak with children we hoped we’d get all four bikes onto one train and we did, both ways (though the uncertainties involved in train travel with bikes really aren’t conducive to cycling’s promotion).

Bikes on train

We’ve done lots of cycle-touring as a family, but this was the first time each of us rode our own bike for more than a day trip in Britain. We wanted to see how it’d go.

It didn’t start well. A car approached from behind on the short stretch into Settle. I was riding at the back. We were getting close to a blind bend so I moved further out to deter the driver from overtaking, but he kept coming, so I kept moving out. He overtook at the bend’s apex, on completely the other side of the road as a car came towards us from the other direction. Rather than stop the overtaking driver moved back in on us, getting uncomfortably close to Sue and Bobby at the front. He must have seen the horror on the faces of the people in the oncoming car, and he should certainly have heard what I had to say, but still he wound his window down in order to tell us that cyclists oughtn’t to be in the middle of the road. Unfortunately we encountered similar recklessness towards our well-being and a similarly over-inflated sense of entitlement to Yorkshire’s rural roads amongst motorists again that day.

I wonder whether local authorities in Yorkshire have started to think about driver/cyclist interactions ahead of next year’s Tour de France which will inevitably see cyclists flocking to this part of the world in advance of the pro peloton thundering its way through?

I usually shrug off drivers’ aggression when I’m cycling alone or with my peers but when I’m with kids I’m incensed by it; it also seems more common then, perhaps because we’re riding more slowly and (the adults at least) defensively.

That wasn’t at all what I meant to write here but I suppose it’s an important and consequential part of our half-term cycling story, and more significantly part of British cycling’s collective story. The Yorkshire Dales is tremendous cycling country, but for who? This was my own children’s introduction to it, and an antagonistic one which they’ll remember. Do we want the Tour’s coming here to encourage children’s cycling? If so, we need to take action. A start would be signs on the roads and in the media requesting motorists to slow down, give space – and if necessary give way – to cyclists. Awareness campaigns – perhaps with Dales’ school children who might most effectively influence adults’ driving – should start now.

Climbing out of Langcliffe

Playing in the snow

Malham Cove

We went over to Malham from Ribblesdale. The climb out of Langcliffe is brutal; the road rises sharply and steeply off the valley floor. Bobby and I were on mountain bikes. Sue rode her town bike, and carried all our gear – I’d feel guilty if I didn’t know how hard she is! I doubted little Flo could make it up, but she did. She never seemed tempted to get off and push, despite (or perhaps because of) my repeatedly telling her there’s no shame in doing so.

As usual we mixed cycling with walking. (What do families who do neither actually do?) But Bobby and I had taken mountain bikes in order to do an off-road ride, so on Wednesday we rode into a bitterly cold wind east from Malhamdale over to Wharfedale.

I’m already excited by the thought that next July the world’s best bike riders will be riding here. Past The Tennant Arms – the pub in Kilnsey where we stopped for bowls of chips and to warm ourselves beside the fire – they’ll scorch so fast it’ll barely register as a blur.

From the pub we rode north a little way into Littondale, then back over a route high enough for snow still deep in places.

Leaving Wharfedale

Riding higher

Through water

Snow drift

Grassy riding

All up of course it’s great to introduce to our kids, and see again for ourselves, parts of the world we know and love, via the two modes of mobility – walking and cycling – which make that world so precious and special. But both Sue and I were struck last week by how hard British cycle-touring as a family might prove to be: it’s not that our kids aren’t competent riders – they are; we’re just unsure whether the stress of shepherding them along roads on which so many anti-cycling motorists drive is conducive to relaxation. I’d thought our continental cycle-touring of the past decade would make way for more domestic cycle-touring over the next, but I’m now less sure.

It’s a shame to think the roads through the magnificent countryside of northern England might be off-limits to my kids, that they might be denied the pleasures of rural cycling. But then many of the roads round town, within a stone’s throw of home, are off-limits too. Whichever’s the greater, both seem like crimes to me. And then I think how the thousands of children lining Yorkshire’s roads to cheer two hundred cyclists next July don’t have the chance to travel their own backyard on two wheels, to experience this magnificent world from the seat of a bicycle, and it seems not a crime but a tragedy.

Leaving Malham, following the River Aire towards Gargrave, we took a stretch of National Cycle Network Route 68. On her little road bike Flo again coped magnificently, this time with mud, puddles, rocks and stones. But what sort of alternative to being harassed by cars is this? I’d hazard one more likely to drive most nine-year olds to tears than to a love of cycling.

Sorry to be bleak. We had a fantastic holiday! I guess I’m just sharing the realisation that the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire next year will be great for cycle sport and great for Yorkshire’s tourist industry but, unless we get our acts together, it’s unlikely to be great something that matters far more, cycling.

National Cycle Network Route 68

Tough riding

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?

When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill

September 25, 2012

I was in Bristol to take part in the City Council’s Inquiry into Cycling Safety last week. I’d been asked to give evidence from the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, into the question “what can the Council and its partners do to improve safety for cyclists in the city?” It’s great these kinds of question are now being asked in Britain’s city halls, and a privilege to be part of the process – we just need to work together to make sure they translate into bold and concrete actions which make cycling simultaneously bigger and safer.

It was great, too, to see so many people riding in Bristol. The parts of the city centre I rode felt relatively hospitable to cycling, and hugely better than here up north in Lancaster. I’d say that Bristol has done relatively well in re-making its central spaces away from cars and towards people. The section of dedicated cycling space in the photo above is directly outside the City Council’s offices on College Green where the Inquiry took place; I was told that this lovely green space was partially reclaimed from motorised traffic in the 1990s. I suspect – as is the case with most big cities which have enjoyed recent gains in cycling – the major challenges now lie elsewhere, further out from the city centre.

And out there be hills! Bristol is unquestionably a hilly city. Mmmm … I admit to feeling slightly awkward when hills are raised as a potential problem to creating a culture of cycling as ordinary. The discussion typically goes as it did at the Inquiry into Cycling Safety in Bristol: Jim Davis, Chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, gave a splendid overview of best-practice cycle provision, based mainly on the Netherlands. (It was wonderful to see the work which Jim and others have done – to promote a paradigm shift in thinking about British cycling – recognised by Bristol City Council. Like mine, I take his invitation to Bristol’s Council House as welcome – if tentative – evidence of a ‘turning-point’ in UK cycling policy, planning and provision.) Then came the typical question – ‘isn’t it the case that the Netherlands has a huge advantage, when it comes to getting people cycling, that it’s pan flat?’

Forget the superb provision for cycling – making it the easiest, most convenient and obvious way of moving around Dutch towns and cities – which Jim’s presentation had just evidenced; when it comes down to it, this line of thinking asks, isn’t the difference between a country with high levels of cycling and one without down to topography?

My awkwardness here reminds me of the awkwardness I feel when discussing whether or not cycling’s safe, whether or not people are inherently lazy (and so unlikely to get on bicycles), or whether segregation or integration is the way ahead for UK cycling. It’s an awkwardness based on awareness that both ‘sides’ have a point, but both are sometimes ill-prepared to hear the others’ (put philosophically, we forget to look for a synthesis of the thesis and its antithesis; put psychologically, we’re better at denial and repudiation than exploration and understanding).

As Jim did, I might point out that rates of cycling can be high in hilly places, such as Swiss cities; I might point out that the winds which often blow across the Netherlands are as hard to push against as many hills; I might (following Professor John Parkin) take the ‘engineer’s line’ that hills can usually be mitigated through sensitive planning of cycle routes (reducing gradient by increasing length, basically) or even (as in Trondheim, Norway) through ‘bike-lifts’; or they can be dealt with at the point-of-purchase through electric bikes; or I might suggest that much of Britain is flat (even most of the routes in a supposedly ‘hilly city’ such as my home town of Lancaster are actually surprisingly flat), and even if rates of cycling tend to be a bit higher across the flatter (and drier) eastern side of Britain, they remain far below typical Dutch rates of cycling.

In other words, we can and do make the case that we can successfully override topography through infrastructurally and/or culturally providing for cycling in ways likely to make it normal. But how persuasive is our case? And anyway, my awkwardness remains, a little niggling, nagging uneasiness. For reasons I find hard to identify, I still somehow feel I haven’t successfully answered the question. Perhaps, however well we answer the question, it’s hard (and even perhaps unwise) to evade a fundamental truth? Because we all know, don’t we, that it’s easier to cycle on the flat than in hills? (In much the same way, we all know, don’t we, that it’s actually more pleasurable to cycle in the absence than the presence of motorised traffic?) It may be less exciting, less fun and less interesting to cycle up hills than on the flat, but it’s certainly (all else being equal) easier.

This makes me think I should change tack, when asked such questions in future. First-of-all, up-front, fair-and-square, agree that ‘yes, it’s easier to cycle when it’s flat, and this almost certainly helps to explain why – when it comes to the ‘rich world’ – the Dutch and Danes are most likely to cycle’.

But then second, to insist that:

  1. places are often flatter than realised;
  2. that people often cycle even in hilly places;
  3. our task nonetheless remains – for all the very good reasons which we already know – to get many more people cycling in all places, including hilly ones; and
  4. what we mean by ‘cycling’ isn’t fixed, but can and will change.

When we spoke to people about cycling during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, perhaps surprisingly, they expressed concerns about hills (and wet weather) much less than they did about heavy and fast-moving traffic. (And looking through the evidence it presented to Bristol City Council, I note that Bristol Cycling Campaign found a similar story when it surveyed rail commuters at the city’s Temple Quay station; over 70% of them identified ‘stressful cycling conditions’ as a reason for not cycling; far above hills and weather.)

People who did not cycle but who were required by our research questions to think about the prospects of their cycling did sometimes mention topography (especially any steep local hills they knew of) and weather (especially rain), as reasons why they’d be unlikely to do so. But our overall impression was that hills (and weather) are far from being the most important reason why people don’t cycle. In Lancaster, perhaps the hilliest (and wettest) of our case study towns, the profile of cycling is probably highest. Topography and weather might influence the amount of cycling undertaken, and the route chosen, but the effect of these fixed factors is much less than the impact of other variables over which we do have some control. That said, I do think that seeing motorised traffic as being more of a barrier to cycling than hills is a function of the cycling which most people currently do. Either they ride exclusively for leisure, in which case they find terrain (and weather conditions) to suit – that usually means flatter ground, alongside rivers, canals and coastlines, or along disused railways. Or else they are relatively ‘serious’ cyclists, for whom hills (and wet weather) aren’t really an issue – they’ve long since equipped themselves with the equipment (range of gears, waterproof clothing) and physical and mental competences to cope.

But in a place which is closer to building a culture of cycling as ordinary, such as Bristol, hills become more of an issue. These places are producing a new kind of cyclist – someone who doesn’t belong either to the ‘hardcore’ and ‘committed’ minority or to the much more sizeable ‘cycling only sociably on summer, sunny Sundays’ contingent. Bristol dubs itself ‘Britain’s first cycling city’. Partly funded by the now defunct Cycling England, it has in recent years enjoyed substantial support for cycling. There are far more cyclists on its streets than I’m used to seeing at home. I believe the current level of cycling is around 8% of all journeys; the target is 20% of all journeys by bike by 2025. That will require cycling to become ‘ordinary’, and given its topography, that will require cycling uphill to become ‘ordinary’.

So how do people – including those who aren’t necessarily super-fit, who aren’t necessarily riding high-quality machines with a good range of gears, and who aren’t necessarily inclined to get sweaty – move around a hilly town successfully by bike?

Exploring the city once my work was done, I saw a pub with big plate glass windows at the top of Park Street – exactly the kind of place I like! I got a table in the window and spent a happy couple of hours watching people outside. I was struck by the numbers of people walking their bikes up Park Street, away from the city centre and towards the University.

Please excuse and indulge my naivety here, because I’ll admit to not having noticed so many people pushing their bicycles uphill in an urban environment before. I’m used to the idea of people sometimes pushing their machines up hills when cycle-touring, and occasionally here in Lancaster I’ll see someone get off to push, usually as they head over the canal into the city’s hilly eastern suburbs, or as they approach Lancaster University, which sits on higher ground to the city’s south. But, perhaps because I’ve never really stopped to notice (and stopping to notice is an important strategy when exploring and understanding urban cycling) I’ve never before seen so many people dismount to push their bikes up the same hill.

However, I think this is less about the hill than it is about the place; the main issue to do with ‘ordinary cycling’ and its approach. In Lancaster we’ve not reached ‘ordinary cycling’; people ride mainly for leisure and tend to avoid hills (and – as much as possible – roads), or else they belong to the ‘hardcore’ minority who (almost unthinkingly?) pedal up the hills. Bristol, in contrast, is building a culture of ‘ordinary cycling’. This ordinary cycling will meet hills, and I’m interested to know what happens when it does. The ‘established’ cultures of ordinary cycling developed by the Dutch and Danes haven’t had to tackle this. We can follow them in providing for cycling in most other respects, but not necessarily when the road rises. We’re entering another dimension …

So next morning I abandoned my plans for a long ride around Bristol and set off to the foot of Park Street instead. The road rises from the docks and heads out of the city towards Bristol University. As it runs adjacent to College Green and the Council House, there’s a dedicated cycle lane. A bit further, and this gives out, near the bottom of the hill.

It’s (deliberately?) ambiguous, what you do here. Riding alone, I would take to the road. Riding with my kids, I’d stick to the (shared space?) pavement (or sidewalk). But as you continue up Park Street, it’s increasingly obvious that cycling’s ‘proper place’ is on the road. And though the pavement remains wide, most people I saw were indeed cycling on the road.

I imagine that it’s about now that you clearly feel you’re on a climb. The gradient ratchets up a notch, you can see the road stretching ahead of you, and you know you’re in for a work-out.

A bit further along, the pavement narrows again, and it’s become obvious by now that cycling should be on the road. As the gradient kicks in, hitting (I’m guessing) around 10%, people respond in different ways.

Some rise out the saddle, but on the whole I was surprised by how many people don’t. There is obviously more stuff to say about types of bikes and ranges of gears here, but I’m not going to (I’ve rambled on enough already) … I will note, though, that I saw a few guys (only guys, and two of them were I think messengers) riding fixed-gear up Park Street (no photos, I’m afraid), but none riding down – did I miss them, or do they descend via a different route?

Researching this piece, I find there’s been a hill climb on this section of road in the last couple of years, though one which doesn’t take place at the traditional ‘roadies’ hill climb time of year, which is autumn, but in February. Riders use different kinds of machine to tackle a 250 metre stretch of the hill – it looks an ace evening’s entertainment!

I’m sorry to generalise in such ugly sociological fashion, but my guess is that different ‘types of people’ ride the hill at different times of day. The previous evening, sat in the pub at the top, more people seemed to be pushing their bikes, and looked to be returning home from work. In the morning, I’d guess many riders to be students and/or lecturers, and a higher proportion of them – in fact, the majority – rode. Indeed, most people seemed to be riding up quite comfortably.

A few people rode Bromptons. Unsurprisingly, given they don’t have the same range of gears as more ‘standard’ bikes, most of their riders were pushing rather than pedalling, though here’s an exception …

The line of riders going up was fairly continuous. Some rode faster, some slower.

The photo below gives a sense of the climb’s length. Certainly, it’s not a climb you can bludgeon your way over – it lasts long enough that you must decide how you’re going to engage with it, the attitude you’re going to take. You can see there’s no specific provision for cycling; the carriageway is sufficiently wide, and cycling speeds sufficiently low, that this didn’t seem to cause any problems. (I’d expect inter-modal conflict to be more common, and more a problem, going down.)

But it would be surprising if everyone rode up this hill, and of course they don’t. A lot of people get off and push. I saw some people do this almost from the foot of the hill, but more often people rode until the hill ramped up, and dismounted there, at the steepest section.

Following people as they pushed their bicycles up the hill, it struck me that here is a simple, rational and straightforward way of tackling ‘the problem’ of hills. The people I saw didn’t look tired, stressed or embarrassed by their ‘decision’ to dismount; they walked uphill with their bikes in a composed way, as if it was entirely normal, which of course it is. So perhaps their strategy doesn’t recognise ‘a problem’ at all? Pushing is something you simply do when you don’t want to ride. (There are questions arising from this preliminary observational work which could only be tackled through stopping to talk with people – how do they experience the act of stopping pedalling and starting to push?)

The one pre-requisite, you’ll perhaps notice, for this pushing strategy to work is a broad pavement (or sidewalk), which Park Street has.

These people demonstrate how hills aren’t a barrier to cycling; they’re only a barrier to a particular, and rather fixed, conception of cycling. ‘Ordinary cycling’ can adapt to hills in different ways, and perhaps in the process challenge and change our understandings of what it means to move around cities by cycle.

To see people dismount to push their machines through junctions or along stretches of road which have effectively ‘designed-out’ cycling is one thing; it is to see evidence of active discrimination against cycling on the part of politicians, transport planners and engineers. I have talked to many people who push rather than ride their machines through difficult junctions and along busy roads, and they do so because they are terrified by the thought of pedalling through those hostile conditions. But this doesn’t mean that any time people are ‘forced’ to dismount there’s a problem. And to see people dismount in order to negotiate a hill which they consider too steep to ride is a different matter. People push their machines for many reasons: to accompany friends on foot; to negotiate pedestrian-dominated space; to browse from shop-to-shop along a high street. The bicycle’s size and easy manoeuvrability gives its user a flexibility unavailable to people travelling by car.

We should I think then celebrate, rather than unduly concern ourselves with, the fact that here is a machine which – if ever the ground rises too sharply and the going gets too tough for our liking – can be pushed as well as pedalled. Where we should concern ourselves is first, with ensuring pavements are sufficiently wide to accommodate not only pedestrians but also those who choose to dismount, and second, with ensuring an openness and tolerance towards different styles of cycling sufficient to ensure no-one feels maligned and marginalised.

As ‘ordinary cycling’ grows the visibility of the current ‘hardcore’ who tend to ride hills come-what-may will steadily diminish. Their (our) way of cycling will gradually become just one possible way of cycling. And that’s good. We want cycling to be ‘ordinary’ (easy, convenient and obvious) not only in flat places, but in hilly places too. And that is perfectly possible. There’s no ‘failure’ in walking a bike up a hill; only ‘success’ in another person making another journey by/with bicycle.

My happy morning of sociological fieldwork took a turn for the even better whilst I mooched around near the top of Park Street, where who should I bump into? The most straightforward – and I think perhaps the best – sociologist I’ve ever known, Dr Ben Fincham, also on a short visit to the city and caught here in the act of parking his bike. Ben’s doctoral work comprised a fascinating (almost ruthlessly unromantic) ethnography of bicycle messengers, and he is one of the founders of the Cycling and Society Research Group. Whenever we talk – which is alas too little – I am always bowled over by his ability to cut through stultifying academic convention and speak honestly but still sociologically from the heart. It was fantastic to so unexpectedly bump into him, and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee in his company.

Back on Park Street, I had a train to catch, and headed down to the city centre. Yet of course, I’ve told only half the story, the uphill half (and only a small part of that, based as it is solely on observation. Any Bristol-based sociology or cultural geography students out there, looking for a research project?). I watched riders fly down Park Street at 30 mph or more. A couple of times I flinched. With motorised traffic, including HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) and buses, many parked cars and a fair few side streets, this is an ‘interesting’ environment to be riding so fast, and the other side of the ‘hilly coin’. For starters I’d suggest hilly cities are not only more demanding of people’s physical capacities going up, but also of their psychological capacities going down. But how ‘ordinary cycling’ might adapt to them, and they to it, are questions for another day (unless there are people out there (and I’m sure there are) who can already tell us something about ‘ordinary’ downhill riding in hilly cities?).

Finally, apologies for the blurriness of my photos – I’m technically inept and, Sue tells me, had the camera set up for portraits. Whoops!

Cycling in France

July 10, 2012

In the continuing poor excuse for a British summer (flooded roads and an absolute drenching on yesterday’s ride), it already seems unlikely I was so recently riding under a warm sun and often cloudless skies in south-east France. But I was, with Jim, who also lives – and for the rest of the year rides – in this corner of north-west England. It was a super trip, comprising three lots of three days’ riding.

We started in the Ardèche, riding 300 miles over a mountainous three-day course which formed part of L’Ardéchoise, a massive annual cycling event which this year celebrated its 20th anniversary.

What an event! Jim had ridden it four times before, and had told me quite a bit about it. Indeed, it was Jim and Jules raving about their experiences of previous L’Ardéchoise – sat in the pub following long, hard riding on cold, dark winter nights – which had first piqued my desire to give it a go. But you know how you can’t quite imagine something until you actually experience it yourself? How, no matter how well someone describes something, it remains just that, a description – until you actually, practically, taste it directly?

So nothing Jim had said prepared me for the magnificence of L’Ardéchoise. The best way I can think to (unsatisfactorily) describe it is to ask you to imagine an area you know well, and perhaps often ride in. For me, it’d be somewhere like the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales National Parks, in this part of England. Then imagine that bit of the world being given over almost completely, and absolutely unapologetically, to cycling. For four consecutive days. Imagine the area announcing in no uncertain terms that it is throwing open its doors to cycling, and cyclists. During L’Ardéchoise I detected not a hint of ambivalence to this welcome: out in the countryside, farmhouses are decked with balloons and banners; at the roadside, people join together to provide drink and food to the riders, whilst bands play as you pedal past; and the villages! Entire villages re-make themselves for the event – the whole place often organised according to a theme (the village below was in the moo … d). It’s as if they’re intent on outdoing one another in the generosity of their welcome.

Towards the end of the first day, having ridden over a hundred miles, I was feeling weary. I’d got insufficient hard miles in my legs, the long climbs had taken their toll, and a spoke snapping in my front wheel had forced us to detour off route in search of a bike shop (huge thanks to the guy from a great bike shop in Vals-les-Bains, Topvelo Vals,  for dropping everything to fix my wheel so quickly and happily). It was getting late and I knew we still had some way to go. And then we emerged into the village square of Chassiers.

Suddenly we rode into a party: music playing; the master of ceremonies announcing our arrival to the whole village; people cheering and clapping; we were being congratulated, and offered food and drink by a happy team of people, who’d presumably been offering riders food and drink over the past few hours. I don’t think I’ve ever, anywhere, felt so valued and appreciated, just for the simple fact I was riding a bike, into their village! It’s too glib to say, but I’ll say it anyway – the British mistreat the cyclist; the Dutch take her or him for granted; but the French – or certainly the French in the Ardèche during L’Ardéchoise – know how to celebrate the cyclist. What a rare and joyous experience, to feel wanted – as someone who loves riding a bicycle – by a whole village; no, by an entire region! This experience helps me understand how the French embrace le vélo in ways which other nations don’t, at least not yet …

If you’re following this year’s Tour de France, you get a sense of this radical orientation to the bicycle when you watch the riders ascending the big mountains, and getting funnelled through a tunnel thick with cheering, screaming, spectators. Paul Sherwen, the British ex-pro cyclist who is now a TV commentator, described a few days ago how that was an experience which, as a rider, would make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. For a mortal like me, L’Ardéchoise is probably as close as I’ll get to that experience. But boy, it’s good!

Also like Le Tour, there’s something special about the involvement which L’Ardéchoise inspires. Actually, ‘involvement’ isn’t the right word, it’s too passive; ‘ownership’ is better. In various ways people don’t simply ‘accept’ the event, or get ‘involved’ in it; they take ‘ownership’ of it – they make it their own. This ownership is demonstrated in folk art. You see it during TV coverage of Le Tour. And riding L’Ardéchoise, you spot it (but also no doubt often miss it) everywhere; bicycles –  clustered together in a velo-love-in, or dangling elegantly and alone – painted in the colours of the Ardèche, the yellow and purple of the wild flowers so wonderfully abundant in late spring.

Material statements of support for the event (and of course there are sound economic motives here) and cycling are everywhere: hand-made sculptures, banners, posters and placards welcoming the ride’s arrival, or more simply stating support for the bike – ‘Vive le velo!’. In these ways, the bicycle is annually, symbolically re-incorporated into the Ardèche (and during Le Tour, the entire French) psyche. Through this folk art people announce and honour their allegiance to the bicycle, and those who ride them. I don’t just mean this romantically – people embracing cycling, taking it to their hearts. I mean it as a tangible process – people in their ordinary lives mundanely reproducing the bicycle’s significance and iconic status within French culture. This cultural work around the bicycle matters. To get concrete about it, let’s look at one empirical outcome we saw often on the roads of south-east France as we rode 650 miles over nine days.

You might argue a society that really respects cycling shouldn’t need to remind motorists to give people riding bicycles space, as they overtake. But perhaps only a society that really respects cycling takes it upon itself to see such signs as important and worth installing. Although I’m wary of a culture of ‘signs for everything’, instruction is needed to bring about changes in behaviour which, when regularly repeated and aggregated, help shift social conditions. In Britain we need to shift conditions on roads to make them better places for cycling, and such signs provide a means of doing so. So we need such signs as one step towards effecting a cultural change towards greater recognition of cycling, and greater respect towards the cyclist.

The cultural work the French do around cycling ensures the status of cycling and the cyclist is preserved, even though few French people cycle. Such cultural work, then, is an essential but insufficient part of a bicycle system oriented to making cycling mainstream. Whilst such events don’t do much – if anything – to get people cycling to school, college, work and the shops, L’Ardéchoise is nonetheless a super example of solid cultural work in support of cycling. The organisational effort behind the event’s success is magnificent. We each paid 200 euros to take part in the three-day Montagne Ardechoise – this covers two night’s (very satisfactory, if basic) accommodation, two (superb) evening meals, two breakfasts, baggage transfer, ride jersey (modelled below by Jim), a meal at the end of the ride, and most importantly, all the behind-the-scenes organisation which makes such an event possible.

Jim and I were two of 15,000 participants. Most riders are French, and many clubs ride together. Although we didn’t meet any, a smattering of participants come from elsewhere around the world. We didn’t get a sense of how big the event is until the last day when our route, one of many, converged with the other rides, and took to closed roads for the final miles to L’Ardéchoise HQ, the village of St Felicien. As the road steadily thickened with cyclists it seemed like the previous two days had been only the prelude to this extravagant finale. We became part of a cycling procession. On the climbs barely an inch of tarmac was without a bike. On the right-hand edge of the roads people cycled slowly, and some pushed their bikes up the steeper sections of the longer climbs. To their left a steady stream of riders overtook. And to their left, sometimes accompanied by shouts of warning as they approached (“attention!”, or “a gauche!”), formed the fastest line of riders.

Over these final hours the event overtook me; the miles passed with my barely noticing. My ride became an experience I was sharing with thousands of fellow cyclists – not ‘strangers’, because this shared act involved some kind of communion – an opening out to others not based on knowing who they are, but on the shared practice of cycling. Together we become part of something sacred. Cycling’s the practice which has most reliably takes me towards something I call sacred, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Given we numbered in our thousands, our procession was remarkably quiet. It became a pilgrimage. How often do we share a ride with so many others? This is not the aggregated mass of individualised, stop-start cycle commuting that can be experienced on a daily basis in cities across the Netherlands and China, or in the Danish capital, Copenhagen; this is thousands of riders moving in the same direction, through the same beautiful countryside, with the same final destination – riders dropping deliriously down a mountain’s side before becoming a concertina crawl up the next long slow climb. There’s no inside/outside here; we become the experience we’re witnessing. Like others at such times I’m unwilling to break the silence, the reverential hush, which together we create. We contribute to something sacred, and our behaviour unconsciously adapts to it. We lose control, and the freedom is ecstatic.

The last 20 km of the ride were breathtaking. They involved a fantastically long descent from Lamastre to St Felicien, via a road that must have been deliberately selected by the local tourist board to stun each rider into a personal promise to one day return – a continuously unravelling panorama of Ardèche countryside at its most achingly beautiful. And sat with Jim and a cold beer in the sunshine at the end, our L’Ardéchoise experience felt complete as we applauded the rides of others, including Robert Marchand – the centenarian, who recently set a new hour record for his age, was the oldest participant in this year’s L’Ardéchoise, completing a day’s ride beyond what many people half his age could ever do. So who knows, perhaps my best riding years might still lie ahead of me?

From the Ardèche we travelled east to the Vercors. We based ourselves in a peaceful riverside municipal campsite at Pont-en-Royans for another three days of riding through outrageously spectacular countryside. The limestone cliffs and deep gorges of this part of France are incredible. Some of the roads we rode left me incredulous – “how on earth did ‘they’ build this road, and why, here?” I’d barely heard of the Vercors, but Jim insisted it provided some of the best cycling in France. And I’m sure he’s right; now I’ve seen it, I aim to return …

And then from the Vercors we travelled east again, basing ourselves at Le Bourg d’Oisans for three days of riding in the French Alps. I’d not been to the Ardèche or Vercors before, but nor had I been to the French Alps, and for me, this was the reason above all for making this trip – a big part of my love for cycling has been shaped by places I’ve only ever seen on TV and read about in books and magazines, places like Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. Without wishing to sound over-dramatic, riding those mountains for myself would be a dream-come-true. It’s also an ambition, a challenge, and – if successful – an achievement, of course. Perhaps the most seductive aspect of challenging rides, for me,  is the slow, unsteady process from hatching the plan, through getting prepared, and finally to its (never done until it’s done) execution.

Jim and I had discussed riding the route of La Marmotte, but in hesitant tones. It would depend …. on how we’d been riding until then, on whether we felt we had the legs, on whether we got lucky with the weather. I wanted to ride both Galiber and L’Alpe d’Huez, but was less sure I’d feel up to riding them together, as part of a day’s ride as long and hard as La Marmotte. To climb 5,000 metres in one day? That’s over three miles in a line straight up to the sky from the ground! But over the first week of our trip we seemed cautiously, slowly and silently to move towards a tacit consensus that we’d give it a shot. The day before, we pitched our tents and did the gentlest local ride we could find, engaging our lowest gear to soft-pedal our way up Col d’Ornan. We checked the weather forecast, which promised a fine start to the day before thunderstorms later, and then during the day we both grew quieter: beginning to focus on the ride ahead, to organise our minds as well as our bikes, and to solidify our conviction that we’d set on a course which we now would steer, come what may.

This is such a strong reason why we ride these rides – to test ourselves, to translate our potential to do a ride into actual achievement, something to stay with us forever; an addition to our own personal palmares. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares – by riding we move towards who we want to be, and become who we are. However amateur, if you ride even half-seriously you develop your own cycling biography, and it’s something which – as Robert Marchand demonstrates – can be added-to until life ends.

We rose at 5, were away by 6. What a feeling! There’s real intensity to the privilege of going into the unknown, not entirely sure what will happen, but knowing that you’re embarking on one of the rides of your life; obviously not emulating the legends of cycle sport, but getting closer to experiencing the obdurate magnificence of a cycle-scape created by all those riders who the world has ever heard of. Of course we rode conservatively, we couldn’t do otherwise. But we made steady progress, up first Col du Glandon and then Col de la Croix de Fer, over which the 2012 Tour de France will in a couple of day’s time ride.

Descending to St Jean de Maurienne Jim hit a stone that slit his tyre, forcing a search for a bike shop to get a replacement. But still we made good progress, the weather stayed on our side, and we grabbed food at St Michel de Maurienne before starting up Col du Telegraphe. Down from the Telegraphe, though Valloire and onto the Galibier. We both were riding well, and hard as it was, this is of course the right kind of ‘hard’ … chosen, of our own free will, and something which adds to rather than detracts from our sense of ourselves … an almost ridiculously (perhaps, in a world so full of involuntary hardship, criminally?) privileged ‘hard’, then.

It’s a long, long descent off Galibier, first down to the Col du Lautaret, where you’re still over 2000 metres, and then down the Romanche valley back to Le Bourg d’Oisans. We knew we could stop here, our campsite less than a mile away. But we over-ruled the little voices in our heads and kept going past the town. So we were onto L’Alpe almost before we knew it. With a hundred miles and 4000 metres climbing already in our legs, it felt outrageously steep. Then the storm broke, thunder rolled, lightning flashed and water was everywhere. We buried our heads, dug deep and kept going, entering our own little worlds. I loved it. My feet were on fire, hot spots breaking out across the base of both. Both my legs began to cramp. All the water was aggravating saddle sores which had built over the past week. I felt as slow as an ox. But I was climbing L’Alpe! Each hairpin carried names of heroes of our sport, and was another step up the mountain, another part of a day which I’ll remember forever.

As we gently rode a recovery ride the next day, we looked down on the road up to Alpe d’Huez. It seems almost vertically to ascend the mountain from the valley floor through 21 switchbacks. We couldn’t quite believe we’d had the strength to ride up it, in a thunderstorm, after ten hours and more than 100 miles in the saddle, just the previous day.

Finally, back to what the French tell us about building a mainstream culture of cycling. As Jim and I rode the roads around Le Bourg d’Oisans, I thought often to myself, “I would not want my kids riding these roads”. Le Bourg d’Oisans feels like a town oriented towards cycling, but not to the everyday needs of ordinary cyclists. The French, to generalise, love cycling. But not in a way which enables everyone to do it.

Huge thanks to Jim for most of the photos (I dropped and broke my camera at the top of Col de la Croix Fer!), for being such a truly amazing travel companion, and for tolerating not just my company but also my  slow descending for so long.

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!

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.

Barriers to cycling: wind

October 6, 2009

I spent a long weekend with some of the Monday nighters, doing some hard riding around the north of England. On Friday we rode from Lancaster to Nenthead, high in the Pennines, via Kirkby Lonsdale, Sedbergh, Appleby-in-Westmorland and Hartside. On Sunday we rode from Brompton-in-Swale, just to the east of Richmond, back home to Lancaster, via Redmire, Coverdale, Littondale and our usual last resting post, The Bridge Inn near Wennington. The sun shone on us, mainly, on Sunday. Here’s a stretch of road which runs along the south-east base of Pen-y-ghent, connecting Halton Gill and Stainforth. As you can see, we’ve got some pretty good cycling infrastructure in the Yorkshire Dales.Yorkshire Dales road

And here’s Colin and me consulting the map, with Pen-y-ghent looming the map at Pen-y-ghent

So we had plenty of hills. But it’s Saturday’s ride, when we also had the wind to contend with, on which I want to concentrate, briefly, here. We began the day riding north through Allendale, towards Hadrian’s Wall. Then Jules turned west, to Brampton and into the teeth of a strengthening gale, whilst Colin, John and I flew east past Hexham before veering south to Blanchland. I nipped into the village shop for flapjack there, and asked the storekeeper if she knew what the wind would be doing. “Getting stronger this afternoon”, she told me, “you’re not going up are you?” We were, over the moors to Stanhope.

As we began the climb we had some shelter. But as we climbed higher there was no escape from the wind. Towards the top, out on the moor, we were riding on the right-hand side of the road, so that when the wind took us, we had the road’s width in which to steady ourselves and remain upright. There was so little traffic, this was a sensible strategy.

Over the top and down the other side we accelerated into trouble. I could feel the wind lifting my wheels from the ground. It kept pushing me off the road, into the verge. John came past me, his body and bike tilted towards the wind, so he was riding at about 70 degrees to the tarmac. I entered a space of complete concentration. Not flow, I felt far too inept and clumsy for that. But I became completely preoccupied with battling the wind, and somehow making it through.

The next time I left the road I looked behind to see a car stopped alongside Colin, who was on the ground. I saw him struggling to his feet, then getting knocked back down again. From where I was, it looked like some kind of surreal comedy, so insanely slapstick that I could imagine it being a Laurel and Hardy sketch. Not silent of course, the wind roared. The wind, it has to be said, was just magnificent.

I tried walking back up the hill with my bike. Impossible. I dumped it in the ditch, and struggled back up to him. If we stood close and shouted, we could just about make ourselves heard before the wind ripped our voices away. He’d pulled over to let the car pass, which had left him with no room for manoeuvre. He’d gone head first over the handlebars, and the bike had landed on top of him. The couple in the car were concerned that he was OK. He was, but I think the incident had completed dented what little faith he may have had remaining in his ability to get down to the valley by bike.

I continued down, and reached the junction with the Edmundbyers-Stanhope road. There was more car traffic along here. Some of the drivers were very good – they were able to see, and respond appropriately to, the difficulties we were having. Others drove atrociously. Later Colin told me how one driver passing him blared his horn, gesticulated wildly, and mouthed obscenities. I guess, from where he sat, and without an ounce of empathy or solidarity with the cyclist’s condition,  it looked like we were holding him up. I guess, in a bizarre and rather ineffective way, we were trying particularly hard to assert our right to the road.

I developed a riding style (using that term loosely) that seemed to work. It involved desperately clinging onto my bike, with one foot clipped in and the other dangling near the ground, so I was ready to dismount every time I left the road.

A little further down, John was waiting. I told him that Colin had crashed, but was OK. John went back up to look for him. By now it had become a very weird drama, three men (as well as two mountain bikers, who I saw briefly, storm-blown statues frozen into the landscape, looking for all the world as though they were completely unable to proceed) stumbling slowly down off a mountain, seeking sanctuary in the valley below, a valley which seemed almost impossible to reach. But finally I got down to a cattle-grid, where I sheltered in the lee of a farm-house, and waited for the others to arrive.

Maybe five minutes passed. A car pulled up. The woman inside told me she’d taken Colin down to Stanhope, and had come back to see if either John or I needed help. A good samaritan! Suddenly the drivers who had passed too close and too fast, seemingly oblivious to our predicament, were trumped in my mind by a single person who’d been willing to help. Colin told me later that she stopped when she saw him lying beside the road, completely exhausted and devoid of a strategy for how to continue. He’d tried to stand up with his bike, his bike had been flipped into the air, he’d been knocked over and his bike had landed on top of him … This lightweight gear’s not all it’s cracked up to be, eh?

John and I had survived the hard bit, so were happy to ride the rest of the way down to Stanhope. What a contrast there! Stanhope’s a lovely little town, full of fine stone buildings. At lunchtime on Saturday it seemed outrageously calm, dignified, impervious to the elements.

Entering the cafe on Stanhope high street was even more surreal. Everything, everybody seemed normal, as if nothing had happened, which of course, for them, it hadn’t. It was like one of those non-stop adventure films where the action suddenly, rudely enters into other people’s everyday lives, destabilising business-as-usual and producing comedy out of the contrast between the intense pace of the action and the stillness of everything else. Couples were sitting quietly, sipping tea from old-fashioned cups which sat elegantly on their saucers. The civility of the tea-room forced us to compose ourselves, but still we must have seemed raucous, rowdy and ever-so-slightly wild.

I wouldn’t swap my place on a bike for the world, even on a day like Saturday. I was a bit scared, I was on the edge of my capacity to keep upright on a bike, and I was exhausted, but I was also exhilarated. The wind breathes life into you. The wind revives. It makes you feel alive …

Wind is seen as a barrier to cycling. But it is also massively constitutive of our cycling experiences. What we cannot avoid, we encounter, experience and embody. The wind makes us, as cyclists, as people who experience the world differently because we ride bikes.

If you ride a bike you know how powerful the wind can be. You sit on a bike. On a bike you’re exposed. In contrast, you inhabit a car, you’re enclosed, sheltered, including from the elements, including from the wind. I think we should celebrate this difference. Admittedly, our experience up in the Pennines on Saturday was a bit extreme, but in general I struggle to understand why we should see the way cycling exposes you to the elements, including the wind, as a problem. Riding in the wind can be hard. But it can also be inspiring. It’s also inevitable. We should see cycling as a way of making ourselves stronger, better people, and thus of making stronger, better cultures.

As with wind, so with some of the other so-called ‘barriers to cycling’, such as hills and rain. People who want to eliminate these ‘barriers to cycling’ want to fit cycling into the world-as-it-is, they want to bend cycling into an imperfect world, they want to make cycling ‘perfect’ so it can sustain imperfection. That’s so wrong. I’d rather people deal with, experience and perhaps learn the pleasures of these ‘barriers to cycling’, so that by cycling they contribute to the world-as-it-ought-to-be.