Posts Tagged ‘sportives’

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

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!