During the evenings for the past week or so the back lanes and tracks have been covered in toads. It is toad mating season, and additionally this delightful fog that’s been hanging about is making everything nice and soggy, encouraging them to get it on right out in the open. This makes the usually boring bits at the very end of my rides into an exciting, frog-dodging obstacle course. As far as I’m aware I haven’t squished any on my bike, although there are a lot of unfortunate dead amphibians lying about along the busier tarmacked roads, clearly crushed by motorised vehicles. I feel an affinity for these knobbly creatures, and a sympathy for the dead ones: they head out of an evening to have fun on quiet lanes, bothering no-one, but in doing so run the risk of meeting a grisly fate under the wheels of a car or van. Poor toads.
A day off and another mountain bike ride. The Packhorse Road has been further “improved” by the National Trust, there are more flagstones across the boggy section at the top, and the first stream crossing now has a stone bridge and flags up most of the subsequent short climb. It means that the entire descent is now easily cleanable, even on a rigid singlespeed. It’s still well worth riding, but I remain skeptical, as they clearly haven’t finished meddling with it, there are lots of stones lying by the side of the path ready to put in place. I used to enjoy the challenge of the scrabbly ruts and drops around the top brook, which is now being turned into a boring, bouncy grind. I suspect they are ultimately going to pave the entire thing top to bottom, which will be a real shame.
Onto the towpath by the little bit of singletrack at the top of the road. These brake pads aren’t bedded in yet, they’re honking like geese. Unscheduled stop to retrieve and refit front mudguard. The little path down on the riverbank. That rooty bit seems much easier than last time. Out into the next village, past the Friday night drinkers as fast as possible. Up the hill, away from civilisation. Quiet roads tonight, must be the fog. Roundabout backlanes to the fun river crossing. Bedding in the brakes on the way down. A new gate. They’ve still not fixed the latch on the old one, so you can bash it open with your front wheel and ride through. Over the stream, up the slabby bit, across the rutty, rocky bit, lovely. Down the edge and past the secret house on the corner. Up the enormous hill. Stop at the gate to catch my breath. Keep going up the enormous hill. Get off and push up the enormous hill. Very foggy at the top. Cross the road to the rutted quarry track. Nearly bin it in a rut. Incredibly foggy, can hardly see, keep having to wipe my specs. Drop out of the fog and this track is really quite nice on the singlespeed. Back up the hill on tarmac. A tailwind up the Isle Of Skye road, that never happens. Back into dense fog, ride right on the verge just in case when a car comes up behind. The incongruous smell of chipfat from a farmer’s old Landrover running on biodiesel. Nearly miss my turning in the fog. Drop down the valley, wet but fast, hop a few new rain ruts hiding in the murk. Home, shower, beer.
I haven’t ridden since the Gargrave ride over two weeks ago, because I inadvertently went on what turned out to be the Worst Holiday Ever, and then I caught a stinking cold. Even my feeble attempts to tame the hideous bike-strewn bomb-site that is my garage (see above) have been cut short by painful bouts of coughing and feeling a bit wobbly. There will not be much cycling going on around here until my immune system has got its act together and I have regained full control of my upper respiratory tract.
Still, it could be worse: two of my friends and fellow holidaymakers are still stuck in France, one of them quite seriously ill in hospital – but that’s another story entirely, and not one that I can tell yet, as it isn’t over. I can say that the holiday wasn’t entirely bad from the start, it was more that things kept going wrong and kept getting worse until the situation got very bad indeed for one of us. But there were some silver linings in amongst all the clouds.
Out past town at 7AM, the usual route, then over Hartshead Moor, through Queensbury to Denholme, and down as fast as we dared to Oxenhope. In Keighley surprising numbers of Sunday morning cyclists began to appear and, even more surprisingly, so did the sun. Up the side of flooded Airedale and along the lanes to Gargrave, tagged on the back of a fast club run for a few miles. A café stop for the most overpriced beans on toast in the world (seven quid!), then out into blustery headwinds to Barnoldswick. Skirting away from Colne and Burnley the roads grew busier, culminating in the singularly unpleasant A6068. A surprisingly tough drag south of Burnley was rewarded by the sinuous descent into Todmorden. Over Summit to Littleborough, heads down along the rat-run to the motorway, then back onto quieter roads over Denshaw and Delph at a snail’s pace, really feeling it now. On the last hill we were knackered enough to crash into each other at comically low speed, before the final drop down the hill took us over the magic 161 kilometre mark.
Ever since I did the Dunwich Dynamo last summer I’ve been contemplating possibilities for similar rides starting nearer to home. Of the various ideas I came up with, a ride out to Scarborough seemed the most promising, with several factors in its favour: any realistic route there heads in a predominantly north-easterly direction, putting the prevailing wind and weather at your back; there are no massive hills in the way; there are numerous quiet back lanes for much of the distance; and Scarborough has a main-line rail station with direct, fast connections back to my home town. When a friend mentioned that he wanted to try to ride a century this seemed to be an obvious candidate. Doing the ride at night in January would add a little bit more challenge and novelty without making the undertaking too difficult. We set a date, finalised the route, and booked some train tickets back home.
The rain was coming down fairly heavily when we set off at 8.30PM, but the roads were already growing quieter and it was quite mild. We dispatched the only two hills of any note quickly and rolled down towards the flatlands that stretch out from the foot of the Pennines towards the sea. As we made our way towards the far edge of West Yorkshire past Huddersfield and Mirfield the traffic thinned out steadily. Cutting the corner between the M1 and the M62 we saw only a handful of cars, and by the time we’d crossed Castleford it seemed that nearly everyone had gone to bed. We stopped to eat some of our food on a bench in a posh dormitory village, and with a little mental arithmetic determined that we were actually going too fast and would arrive at least a couple of hours before the first train home at 6.30AM. We reduced our pace a little in spite of miles of smooth, brand-new tarmac inciting us to race onwards. The rain had stopped by now, but we could see the weather front rolling ahead of us, depositing large amounts of water on the roads, which remained wet for the whole night.
After slipping through Sherburn-in-Elmet we were engulfed in the stench of burning tyres from a massive recycling plant fire, but this only persisted for a few minutes. Once past this final industrial area the traffic effectively vanished. We saw only one or two vehicles an hour from now on, apart from on the odd short sections of A-road which had to be crossed, and even these were quiet. The back lanes were often rough and standing water hid potholes and debris, but with no-one else on the roads it hardly mattered, and we rode two-up most of the time, chatting occasionally. Passing through Wheldrake and Elvington I recognised landmarks from my days at university when I used to ride my mountain bike (and only bike) along featureless, flat bridleway tracks in search of anything worth exploring. I never did find anything fun off-road hereabouts. I would have been much better off with a road bike in those days, this area has to be much more engaging when covered at the higher speeds possible on skinny tyres.
We stopped again at Stamford Bridge to take on more food, and noted that in spite of our efforts to take it easy we were still on schedule for a very early arrival. Going much slower would have resulted in us getting cold, so we decided to just carry on and trust to finding somewhere to shelter at the end. The riding itself was positively enjoyable, the roads undulating but not tough, and in the forty minutes or so between Stamford Bridge and Malton we saw only one car. Beyond Malton our route deteriorated to very rough single-track lanes with deep puddles, thick layers of mud and farm debris all over, but still completely deserted and otherwise very easy going. I was a little apprehensive about the 7km stretch of the A170 that we had to cover, but at 4AM even this was totally silent. We saw one van just outside Scarborough, and other than that we had the entire world to ourselves. The contrast with the normal experience of using the roads in this country could not have been more marked. It struck me just how sad it is that road cycling is so frequently ruined by the impatience, inattention or plain, straight-up hatred of motorists. Riding these silent roads, flying along under our own power without constantly having to be on guard for murderous or ignorant drivers was a revelation. It’s pretty tragic that the only way to experience this in the UK is to do something like taking to the back lanes of North Yorkshire at 3AM in January.
Turning off for the final stretch down Forge Valley we plunged into misty woodlands, chilly and eerie, and a much more interesting approach to the town than the obvious drag along the main road. We took a couple of wrong turns in Scarborough itself, but eventually found our way down to the seafront having clocked up just over 100 miles in seven and a half hours or so of riding. There was not a soul around as we made our way out to the sea, which was inconsiderately lurking an extra quarter of a mile out from the promenade. I polished off the last of my flask of coffee and took a few snaps, trying (and failing) to capture the outline of The Grand Hotel against the clouds, before we hauled ourselves back up to the centre of town and the station.
Unfortunately the station was closed and we huddled outside the door, wearing every extra layer we had with us, for a good hour and a half before the authorities decided to open up (typically, twenty minutes late and with thirty of forty grumbling people milling about waiting to be let in). We ensconced ourselves near our bikes in the single designated bike-storage section, and within about five minutes I had passed out. I awoke briefly at Leeds, and then again as we drew into Huddersfield. A few more miles on the stopper, a roll down the hill, and I was back before 9 o’clock, exhausted but very satisfied with the first century ride of the year.
A 6AM start for our first 100km of this year. It rained from the off, but we pressed on down past town and out on Leeds road, where we encountered the first moron of the day: the driver of a massive crane couldn’t possibly slow down for a couple of seconds and squeezed a good forty or fifty tons of heavy industrial machinery between us and a traffic island with inches to spare. He turned off a mere 500m later into the Syngenta site, where I’m sure they desperately needed a crane at 6.30AM on a Saturday morning, so clearly his haste was entirely justified.
By way of an unusual contrast the normally horrible run from Cooper Bridge to the motorway junction was surprisingly quiet, and our progress through Brighouse, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden was similarly unremarkable with little more than the usual close passes, impatience and standard issue driver dopeyness on display. It was only after we started to descend towards Rochdale and Oldham that the real rocket surgeons turned out, beeping us for riding two-up, buzzing past mere inches away, pulling in early, deliberately cutting us up and boxing us in. We singled out, bunched up, and treated every driver like they wanted us dead, by which actions I am happy to report that we made it through.
From Stalybridge we turned away from the headwind that had harassed us nearly as much as the traffic, and made our way up the quiet section of A635 towards Greenfield. The rain had moved on too, and both the cars and their drivers were significantly less dense than those encountered earlier. One final drag up the steady climb over Standedge, down the other side, and we were done: a loop of almost precisely 100km on the nose. It was a satisfying ride all things considered, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that specific route again, or venturing anywhere near the dump that is Oldham on two wheels either, for that matter. The motorists of Oldham really are selfish, ignorant, knuckle-dragging imbeciles and I hope they all, every last one of them, die unhappily early deaths from galloping haemorrhoids. And that crane driver, him too.
A damp but mild Thursday night saw us investigating a few promising lines on the map to see if there was anything fun that was yet to be uncovered over on the Saddleworth side of our hills. I had not been over that side of the watershed on the mountain bike for quite a long time, and I fancied a change. We set off up one of the usual drags out of the village, and dropped down Boat Lane, which is always fun and holds up quite well even in the worst weather, guaranteeing at least one enjoyable descent even if the rest of the night developed into a wash-out. Climbing back over into the next valley and descending via the aptly-named track past Waters, that one which usually resembles a small stream at the best of times, we ended up thoroughly soaked and caked in mud. Even though it wasn’t raining much at the time it had been wet for the previous few days, so there was standing and running water everywhere, a small but significant quantity of which was destined to come home with us in our socks.On the first properly new path of the night we found a mysterious shrine to “Wisdom”, four carved stone blocks circled around a spring, hiding in the dark. The stones looked very new with no real sign of the usual Pennine algal green on them, so either they’ve not been there for long, or someone cleans them regularly. We moved on swiftly, before any local pagans had chance to capture us for ritual sacrifice or a lengthy discursion on eco-friendly stone-carving. It’s that sort of neighbourhood. The path itself made for a pleasant, steady way of gaining the ridge above, a friendly alternative to the usual route which batters its way up a stony 1-in-4 lung-buster of a climb.
We dropped down to Delph along a track I have been eyeballing on the map for a few months now, a route that turned out to be excellently rocky and entertaining, if very wet. Slippery green slabs of slick rock nearly caught us out a couple of times, and the lower section of path was basically a stream-bed due to the heavy rain of the previous days, but in summer this must be an excellent descent, and I can’t wait to revisit it in the sunshine.
A bad choice of climb back up onto Harrop Edge had us off and pushing, but the other side of the hill was another enjoyable blast of rocky downhill to the road, which, as it was getting late, we elected to follow straight back to the pub. All things considered it was an excellent evening out, the soggy conditions under-wheel notwithstanding, and our explorations opened up a couple of new, useful routes to add in to our regular loops.
Forty or so early-morning road miles during a lull in the stormy weather we’re having. Just over half-way round our loop, Windy Hill wasn’t all that windy for a change, but naturally we’re not going to tell anyone that. Besides, it’s a long drag with a couple of nasty kicks at the end by way of a sting in the tail, so even without a headwind you work to get up there. Booth Wood Reservoir was overflowing down the dam wall after the past few weeks’ rain, a spectacular sight as we wound our way up the opening ramp of the climb. The lights of the M62 diffusing through traffic-spray and reflecting in the water looked almost pretty as the dawn grew in the east.
From the reservoir onwards you can see the communications mast at the top of the hill, always seeming further away than you want it to be. I used to be scared by it as a young child for some unfathomable reason; I recall trying to hide from it in the car, and I must have driven my parents mad with my irrational fear every time we drove past this structure on the way to my grandparents’ house. I have no idea what it’s for, but it always seems to interfere with my phone if I’m near it. Very suspicious.
At the level of the dam the road flattens out and undulates along, tempting you to push faster and faster, but you should save something for the final section, ramping up progressively harder until the two final steps up and under the motorway junction. Beyond Oxygrains Old Bridge you start to climb again, and either side of the motorway the gradient gets more severe before finally levelling out at the summit. I gave it my best on the last section, but I was glad to finally see the lights of Rochdale and Manchester below me. I stopped just over the brow to wait for my mates, caught my breath and tried to look nonchalant, and a few minutes later we rolled down through the rain into Saddleworth, with only a handful more miles and one more hill to go.
2013 was a good year for this particular cyclist. We had a proper summer for the first time in years, and I did a reasonable job of making the most of it. I rode further than I ever have before, both in terms of individual ride length and overall total distance for the year. Whilst I injured myself a few times, I have managed to dodge any serious damage and haven’t unintentionally broken myself since about April. I feel like I have come out of this year a better rider both in terms of fitness and skill, if those terms are not too grand for my strictly limited abilities.
Of this year’s rides there were too many good days to single out any one as the most rewarding, but if I have to choose a landmark then I’m probably proudest of doing the West Highland Way; it was a pretty serious challenge for me, and one where I think I did my best. As for low points, I’m most disappointed in myself for bailing out of Relentless in the middle of the night, but I’ve reconciled myself to what happened, I enjoyed most of the riding, and I learnt a lot from the whole experience, so it wasn’t all bad.
Of the bike-related things that I didn’t write about on here a couple were quite noteworthy. I joined a local cycling club for the first time, and have been enjoying getting out on the road in a group a few times a month. I went on a skills course in November, and was surprised to discover how much someone who has been riding for twenty-odd years can learn in just a few hours. I will probably write a bit about both these subjects at some point in the near future.
I have some aims for next year. A group of us are planning to do the Fred Whitton Four Seasons ride, which is going to need some serious preparation if it is to be in any way enjoyable. I want to commute to work by bike much more often, as I really let this slide after a good start in early 2013. I have been meaning to do the Mary Towneley Loop for years now so I should really get around to that. After our Helvellyn adventure in September I really fancy doing some more bivvy rides, and I have ideas for a couple of good ones not too far from home once the worst of winter blows over. I have a huge list of other rides and bike-related things I’d love to do, and ticking a few of those off would be brilliant. And, of course, the Tour De France is going to be riding over the hills I grew up on, and I will be there. If things go even remotely to plan, 2014 should be a fine year.
Happy new year! I hope you have a good one.