Ever since Beatrix Potter invented the compact chainset and opened up the lumpy terrain of Cumbria’s Lake District to mass cycle tourism the area has been a mecca for bike riders keen to test themselves against the challenges of riding all day on a diet of nothing but kendal mintcake and swallowed horse flies. Where once tourists would admire the grandeur of the scenery using their claude glass, modern day bike riding visitors can similarly use the convex mirrors placed opposite many local residents’ entrances on those bendy lanes to check out how awesome they look as they fly past. It is thanks to Miss Potter (not to be confused with texan actress Renee Zellwegger of course as nobody from Texas ever spent their time coming up with creative ways of riding bikes up hills faster than people could already) that the fells over which Wordsworth and Coleridge (TC to his friends) once strode thinking great thoughts now resound to the clunking of gears, zipping and unzipping of Assos, and beeping of heartrate meters.
The Lakeland Loop is just one of a number of organised rides laid on for those of us for whom it just doesn’t seem worth getting up in the morning without the promise of someone strapping a timing chip to our front skewer. Just as a tree falling in a forest makes no sound if there is nobody there to hear it, a cyclist out for a Sunday ride makes makes no consequence to the world around him unless he gets a spreadsheet with his time on it by email on Monday morning. The granddaddy of the these Lakeland rides, Cumbria’s big Buckle, is of course the Fred Whitton but like the population of some of the villages there, Cumbria’s bike rides are all pretty closely related and they mostly cover slightly different permutations of the same dales and passes. The Lakeland Loop starts in somewhere with dungeon in the name and ends with a hill with hard in its title so it still offers to those who complete it at least some of the bragging rights of the finishers of the Fred.
Rides organised by the company which lays on the the Lakeland Loop have always had quite a nice relaxed feel to them but this year they have made the wearing of the magic plastic hat of invincibility compulsory (although they didn’t communicate this rule to the folks who make their promotional videos) which takes away from that ambience slightly but there is still no check made on participants to make sure they have brakes, oil on the chain, tyres that have been renewed since Suez or any awareness of the highway code or their own mortality so as long as you’ve got a hat on when you roll out in the morning they are happy which is pretty much par for the course nowadays. Some of the venues these events use to host coffee stops have quite low doorways riders could bang their heads on but it it stills seems a case of overkill to wear a hat all the way round for that although every one’s got boxes to tick nowadays I suppose.
The Loop basically starts with a 50 mile warm up ride out to the Irish sea, where the waters beyond the towers and sheds of Windscale shine Plutonium blue in the sunshine. The thought of how much radioactivity is sent out towards the Isle of Man makes you wonder if all that radiation hasn’t contributed to the superhuman acceleration powers of that Island’s most famous cycling son and whether we are yet to see Cav resort to getting his own back on Marcel Kittel by means of sticking the Argos Shimano wunderkind to the road by means of a spider web spun from his own wrists.
At the end of the warm up lap lies Hardknott Pass, ancient roman military route then historic pack horse track. Nobody would put a road there today. Like ballet and fox hunting, things nobody would invent nowadays, it is only there because it has always been there. Like life, Hardknott is nasty, brutish and short. The 30% gradient means tarmac doesn’t stick to the hillside so the surface has the wibbly wobbly lumpiness of melted choclate, the harshness of winter (this August’s ride was postponed from April because of the snow on this part of the route) and the local authority’s road mending priorities laying elsewhere, mean the tarmac which hasn’t slid halfway down the fellside has in places descended into a potholed gravelly mess, the switch backs are front wheel liftingly steep, and the free roaming herdwicks have little else to occupy themselves on their hillside, far as it is from any decent 3G coverage, other than to play chicken with descending cyclists. Hardknott is, in summary, the best fun you can have with your cleats on.
Riding a bike around this most lovely corner of North West England is uplifting to the spirit in so many ways but always leaves that nagging doubt, that fly in the ointment of existential contentment, that if only Coleridge had owned a bike, and that instead of poncing around with the Wordsworths and going on about lost sailors and seagulls all the time he had experienced the true meaning of life, which is riding a bike down a 30% hill with your eyes closed, then what great verse he might have written, how different the romantic legacy would be, and how you wouldn’t now need to listen to me trying to wax lyrical about this stuff because you could go to someone who could actually write. That will just have to remain one of literature’s great what ifs I suppose.