So I found out I’d entered the same bikesportiveridetypething in that land of lakes and stupidly steep hills that lies over our western county line as someone else at work. ‘Who’ll get round quicker?’ asked someone who knows us both. ‘Well’ I replied, ‘the other person is taller and slimmer than me, has bigger hills on the doorstep than I do, thinks time trials are fun, rides with a hard-as-nails cycling club and has ridden further in a day than I can manage over a whole weekend’. I thought that covered pretty much everything. ‘Plus they are twenty’ added our mutual friend, helpfully. Today was supposed to be the first day of spring and in fact apart from the bare trees, black ice, snow showers and the digit in front of the big letter C remaining obstinately single all day it could have been the start of summer so I reckoned I should head up out of the valley to where you can see the fells we’ll be riding over in May as it has been scientifically shown that looking at hills from a safe distance is almost as good as riding up them in terms of training benefit.
Birkdale Common is crossed by a lonely road which leads up to the high flat bit on the edge of the escarpment known as Lamps Moss. It’s not just the lack of traffic that makes it lonely though, it just feels a long way from anywhere, a place I shy away from over the winter not just because the weather often makes the roads bike unfriendly, or in fact unfriendly to anything without skis, not just for fear of having some kind of problem up there when you really wouldn’t want to be hanging around, but something more unexplainable and intangible. Leaving all that long dark teatime of the sould stuff aside though the sweeping descent down unto the Eden valley after one of the best views to be had for miles; the Lakeland fells laid out in the distance, the Mallerstang valley heading off the the south and the high fells of the North Pennines sweeping down the the Vale of Eden to the north, is a very cool bit of downhillness worth a touch of anybody’s existential angst from time to time.
It’s quite a long ride for this early in the year though and the spring sunshine faded about the same time as my legs. In terms of the little event coming up in May I don’t think there’s a way to win in those few short weeks’ time but as Robert Mitcham told Jane Greer, there is a way to lose more slowly.
You can’t get to Crackpot Hall on a bike, well, not a proper bike anyway. For much of the valley the road follows the river down the hill, sometimes high above the water, sometimes at stone skimming level, sometimes river bank jostling road verge, sometimes removed to a more personal space respecting distance, but for a few miles the river has its valley to itself. People lived in The Hall for two hundred and fifty years but the last resident family left in their pyjamas on a dark and stormy night, the sudden self awareness that they just couldn’t face riding MTBs any more and needed to move somewhere more accessible occurring on the same night the combination of heavy rain and the effects on the integrity of the hillside of a couple of hundred years of miners digging holes in it caused their home to collapse around them. Once people lived here, worked here, loved here, lay awake on Saturday mornings watching their partner sleep, shouted to the children that tea was ready, mopped frosty morning condensation from the windows, poured kettles of hot water from a big iron range into a tin bath, posted selfies on facebook and all this they managed without power, water or 4G mobile coverage. Now there are just some lonely old stones. When the last family left here in the fifties it wasn’t just a home which was lost but a way of life. Now all that can be heard, here as in other places, is the blowing of the wind, the munching of the sheep, and the clicking of those ridiculous pointy telescopic poles which nobody seems to be able to walk even to the postbox without nowadays but if you stand very still on this abandoned bit of the valleyside and close your eyes you might still just be able hear the setting down of tea mugs on a kitchen table, the barking of a dog chasing its own tail and children running across the farmyard but for that you have to get there very early in the morning.
It seems like it’s been a long winter, cold and wet and full of non-cycling stresses and diversions but Buttertubs has waited for me and today was the reunion. Three months it’s been. I promised I wouldn’t stay away so long next time. One of us has seen other hills while we’ve been apart, one of us other cyclists but we didn’t talk about that. Neither of us has changed much although there is a big orange banner at the bottom erected by the parish council to welcome the bike race which I have probably already mentioned is visiting these parts in July. It’s not like a tattoo or something though, not permanent, and will be gone in time, well before July I would expect. In terrible shape I may be, and the wind still has a bite to it but winter has yet to run its course and today was a gift of sunshine and dry roads so to stay indoors would have been a terrible thing, being all warm, by the fire, with a mug of tea, watching DVDs, all snug on the sofa, yes, terrible…
To visit a place where historical actuality becomes legend and fiction becomes part of the reality is a welcome escape from the world of the internet and its stict code of Gradgrind-like scrupulous adherence to the facts. Whitby is a place of stories and nobody can remember which ones are true anymore. Local folk still tell tales of a pale thin emotionless character from a strange foreign land who once washed up in the town for example, and as well as Gwyneth Paltrow filming those scenes from Possession
there was Dracula who came to Whitby from Eastern Europe to work in the industrial estate up the hill only to find himself immortalised, again. Rubbing shoulders on a rainy Saturday in the ancient streets with local workers, damp daytrippers and, out of season like lobsters but still glorious, goths, each inhabiting their own distinct reality in the same physical space, a kind of metaphysical version of what ecologists know as niche separation
, visitors can decide where they best fit in to the picture but as a bike rider I see the goths with their black outfits, adopted air of grave seriousness whilst wearing a hat and awareness of the disappoval bestowed on them by a certain imagination impaired section of the wider society but determination to carry on doing it anyway and if I have to choose I kind of have a feeling where my affinity lies.
Whilst my bike, along with many up and down the country, rests idle while these islands rapidly descend to join our cousins across the North Sea below sea level tonight it’s hard to find anything to look forward to although being a grounded bike rider is nothing compared to being flooded out and dependent for assistance on a washed up politician from the Blair era, putting a Labour party former minister in charge of protecting life and property being on a par with making Freidrich Paulus president of Stalingrad Civic Society in the dubious public appointments department. Fortunately my thoughts are able to turn to summer and riding the route of the 2012 Olympic bike race which I found out about whilst channel flipping last August and thought might be fun. I’ve paid my entry fee and booked a hotel. Now all I need to do is try and ride my bike a couple of times between now and August in the hope it doesn’t seize up from lack of use completely rather than just look at it forlornly in the kitchen, headlamps gazing morosely at the lino as the rain, former bits of trees and Kansas farmgirls beat against the windows. On the plus side the frequency with which the lights are flickering suggests I won’t have to look at it much longer.
People often say Londoners aren’t very helpful to visitors but I think it’s great the way all districts of London have the word London prefixed to them so out of towners can be sure they are booking hotels near the centre and not in some similarly and misleadingly named location which is actually miles away and so I’ve made my reservation in the ancient borough of London-Stansted which the receptionist assured me is just a short ride in to the city. It’ll have to be as I had to promise to leave them my car to help settle the cost of a room for the night.
Place in the ride and city centre penthouse suite secured I’m still just a little unsure how I’ll adapt to the conditions down south. The streets of London are paved with gold, unsurprisingly given the proportion of the national income we all pay them in tax, and I don’t know if you need special tyres for that or if the Continental PotholePro6000s I use at home will even be allowed by the very long list of rules designed to prevent terrorists, who for doctrinal reasons always carry out their attacks on bikes without plastic plugs in the end of the handlebars so if you enforce tidy bar tape you thwart their evil plans and make the world safe for democracy, infiltrating the festivities. The other big challenge is that London is flat and this won’t necessarily suit my riding style which is to walk up hills, coast down them and generally ride for hours without ever turning the pedals. I’ve taken a leaf out of the pros’ playbook though and have been carefully studying videos of the route to get a feel for what I’ll be up against.
I’m also still unsure how I managed to get into an oversubscribed ride that left so many keen riders who tried to enter as frustrated as a flooded out householder on the phone to the Environment Agency but I can only guess that my limited interweb skills, as demonstrated on this blog on a slightly irregular but broadly weekly basis, resulted in my accidentaly entering the number of days I reckon it’ll take me to get round the course into the estimated time section hours box and the organisers took my entry to be almost certainly a front for Marianne Vos seeking to relive her Olympic gold medal one more time. Not wishing to disappoint I’ve already bought some orange shorts and in fact I’m wearing them right now to get into the zone. I’m confident if I wear my really dark sunglasses I’ll just about get away with it. The bike riding bit of being Vos might not be progressing very far this evening and geographically, metrologically and something else ending in ically it all seems a long way away but whether I end up in a ticker tape parade through The Hague or in Guantanamo Bay for not wearing a helmet I’m quite looking forward to the big day and I picked up a car load of Heineken on my way home earlier so bad weather or not getting into shape for re-enacting the biggest dutch victory in the south east since 1667 starts tonight.
The main road along the lower ten miles of the valley has begun a three month programme of closures to try and deal with the subsidence it suffers by reason of being built half way up a river bank. The aim is to try to prevent it disappearing into the river altogether. There have been multiple sets of temporary traffic lights on this route for over a year now and everyone is fed up with them and increasingly ignoring them which is a cause of concern for those of us not quite as equipped as some to meet a red light running 4×4 driven by a stout woman in tweeds on equal terms. You would think that folks would welcome the road finally getting fixed but the retired military types and civil servants who at a time in the past not fully pinpointed by the historical record replaced the earlier norse inhabitants of the dale have been up in arms, although fortunately their access to actual arms is limited nowadays, because they might have to drive a different way to resupply on viagra and Guns and Ammo magazine. You’d think they were putting landmines under the road rather than underpinning. It’s quite ironic really as the folks moaning most about their villages being cut off are the ones who moved there in the first place because it was quiet, out of the way and remote. There’s no pleasing some people.
There is a parallel road to the falling down one, a road which runs along the top of the valley. This is the old road, from the times when our ancestors kept to the high ground whilst travelling, avoiding the valley bottoms which were boggy, wooded, devoid of landmarks and full of locals whose first reaction to a stranger passing through their patch was not necessarily to put the kettle on and invite them in for a brew. The ancient tradition of walking the ridgeways is still to be found on this route as coast to coast ramblers spill onto the tarmac for a short stretch, wooden staffs nowadays replaced by those telescopic pointy sticks hikers often swing ineffectually by the wrist straps as they rustle along the road singing The Happy Wanderer. The high road has a bit of a climb at both ends, and also in the middle, but we’re not talking the Gotthard Pass here. The diversion is however a double edged sword for those on bikes as well as it takes away the default bad weather wimp-out option of going up and down the valley avoiding anything steep which might be icy or anything high which might be a bit windy for two wheels but the views can be terrific and let’s face it some of us need the workout.
On a day like today though, with gales and rain adding to closures and diversions and causing the extra effort to make the keenest rider wonder why they should even get out of bed, good reasons are needed to go out the door. Fortunately for those of us not chasing marginal gains and podium places, even if we have the spring classics marked up in our diary as if we were actually competing in them, rainbows can be reasons enough.
It’s February, it’s freezing cold, it’s very windy, the roads are either icy or gravelly or both, it gets dark early, everyone is downbeat and fed up and The Samaritans
cancel all leave for their volunteers when the weather forecast is due to be on the telly so I’m almost as sure as I can be that it is the middle of winter but several hours as we now are into the British Isles’ coldest month of the year there is one certain thing missing. Like alcohol free beer, decaff coffee, coke zero, bicycles screwed to the floors of gyms, Liberal Democrats or electronic cigarettes winter without snow is an empty experience, a pale imitation of the real thing, Snow is not an unmitigated good thing, like fags or booze, it can be terrible for livestock and those who have to try and keep them alive, it blocks the roads, causes all kinds of damage, and it generally makes people reach for all the things they’ve been trying to give up since new year but don’t worry because me talking about it won’t make it happen. There’s been sleet and hail of course, which are to snow what a chain store latte is to coffee, even brief flurries of proper pointy flakey floaty snowy stuff and a bit more than that even on some of the higher places but that just serves as a reminder of what is missed, like a faded photo of a lost love. I recognise that these islands have a temperate climate and snow takes a certain coincidence of weather, well a collision in fact, to occur. It needs one of the big Atlantic depressions which bring our precipitation to slam into a cold European high pressure system coming the other way. Snow is not therefore a November to March constant here as it is for others on the same latitude but last year there were drifts on the road over the moor which were too high to see over from the saddle of a bike, majorly disruptive but alpine in beauty and scale and laying on the ground past Easter. What I really long for right now is the sun, for warm breeze on bare arms, for long days and tall drinks but that is still a while away and a wee bit of the white stuff before then would allow this winter to call itself a proper season at last, to hold its head up high right there between autumn and spring, and not just be the black hole of nothingness it has been so far.