The first part of a long cycle is often the best. You’re fresh, with loads of energy, and the excitement of a new adventure is easy to get caught up in. The hills are dispatched with enthusiasm, the scenery is marvelled at, and the freedom of being out in the country washes away the stress of life.
But the opening stages of this weekend’s trip to Yorkshire were even better than usual. It wasn’t just that Team A from last year’s LEJOG was reunited for the weekend. Or that the scenery was more beautiful than most. Or that the hills were steeper and more challenging than expected, but still conquered.
It was all of that, and more. The spring lambs, curiously peering at us through farm gates, running away in alarm when we baa’d at them. The snow drifts on the sides of the road, and next to the walls, and all over the hills. The little stone villages of Yorkshire. Absolutely fabulous. This is what life is all about.
It took a few miles for us to get into the swing of the 20% gradient hills, though. In retrospect, I should have taken more note of the description of the route as “challenging”. And perhaps have planned it a bit later in the year to give us a bit more time to get back a bit of fitness after the winter. By the time we got to Settle, though, we were in the groove, and a delicious lunch in the Talbot Arms should have given us the boost to get through the rest of the 35 miles in the day. The next section to Ingleton was also good, with Clapham being a particularly beautiful spot. But the weather was closing in, and the rain that was supposed to start at 6pm was threatening.
And then it started – as soon as we left Ingleton, the rain came down, and we ran into a headwind. The 15 miles to Dent took almost two hours, largely due to the 1500 foot ascent. For a long stretch, we couldn’t manage any more than 6mph, and even the flat sections were slow. When we finally managed to get over the top, the steep downhill run into Dent on wet, winding roads was one of the more scary things I’ve done on a bike. After a thaw in a pub in Dent, and another slow 8 miles in the rain, we turned left onto a main road. Suddenly, we had the wind behind us, a downhill in front of us, and the last five miles to our overnight stop in Hawes just flew by at an average of nearly 30mph.
I’d hoped to get to Hawes in time to go to the Wensleydale cheese shop for supper. Alas, we arrived far too late for that. All we had energy for was a quick walk down to the town to find supper at a pub (but escaped before the “Pirates of the Karaoke” session started). Then straight to bed, although I didn’t get much sleep – the wind was howling outside so much our dorm mate eventually jammed the window shut with his pants to try keep it quiet. It didn’t bode well for the following day.
The weather for Sunday was supposed to be warm, largely sunny, with a bit of wind. It turned out to be cold, rainy, with a lot of wind. The route east to Wensley was easy enough – but only because we skipped out the route to Swaledale (which includes two 1500ft ascents). Given the day we’d had before, and the fact that we had a train to catch, I was debating whether to do the full route, or take a shortcut. As it turned out, we started on the hill up out of Askrigg, turned a corner, saw a sign for a 25% gradient, and made a snap decision to take the easy way out.
Which was the smartest thing we did all day. Because as soon as we turned south from Wensley, to tackle the long hill over to Kettlewell, we hit a serious headwind. The higher we got, the stronger it blew. Once we got over the first rise, and through Middleham, it was an effort just to keep going on the flat sections. The only way it could get worse is if it started raining. So it started raining. With the wind getting stronger, the rain felt like hail on the face. I would have been tempted to stop and wait for it to pass, but the tiny little villages we passed through didn’t have anywhere to take shelter on a Sunday morning. So onwards we soldiered, getting more miserable, and more tired, and more wet.
And then we passed Horsehouse, and the last really steep bit started. It was the most draining thing I’ve ever done. Numerous times I just had to stop and take a breather for a few minutes, before battling up another few hundred yards. When we got to the top, the intensity of the wind was such that the rain on my face felt like a hundred little cats chewing my cheeks off. I couldn’t see a thing through my glasses, but couldn’t take them off, or I would have had a hundred little birds pecking my eyes out. And after all that, there was another mile and a half of 25% gradient downhill on a soaking, muddy road, where I literally had my hands as tight as they would go on the brakes the whole way down, while barely being able to see anything. But eventually we arrived in Kettlewell.
The obligatory pub was closed, but Zarina’s coffee shop was open, as evidenced by the bevy of bikes parked outside. This is obviously a popular haunt – there was even a bike rack. Inside, we managed to squeeze past eight other cyclists to find a table in the corner, where we dripped all over the floor, and shivered like drowned rats. We’d been passed by two of the cyclists there (who shouted encouragement along the likes of “We’re going the wrong way today!” and “Character building stuff, this!”), so we joined in the chat. The other six had come up from the south, “an easy 50 miles, should be an easy ride back”. Hmph. Not fair. We’d only done 31, but it felt more like 91.
We resolved to not move until the rain stopped. “No!” gasped Zarina, “You’ll be here for weeks!” In the end, even a long, leisurely lunch, with pudding to drag it out, wasn’t long enough for the rain to stop, and we had to go out again into the wet. Instead of the 18 – 19 miles of the official route, we took the B-road back, which was only 15. About 4 miles out from Skipton, the sun came out, the rain stopped, and I almost felt like I might remember what being dry might be like. Chatting to people in Skipton, and back in York a bit later, it turns out that the weather in both those towns was wonderful over the weekend.
Perhaps it would have been better to have stayed in York for the weekend, and just told everyone that we’d gone cycling. It would have avoided nigh on 10,000 feet of climbing, 120 miles of cycling, and loads of misery. I certainly felt that that would have been the right choice for a lot of the time we were on the bikes. But in hindsight, the 60 dry miles, when added to the sense of achievement, outweighed the 60 wet ones. But we both agreed that the next such adventure should take place somewhere flatter. Norfolk, perhaps…