There still exists in english common law the ancient offence of takingitmuchtooseriously however as is the case with the law about practising archery at weekends it is little prosecuted in today’s po-faced world but with the Tour de France only a few weeks away never has there been so much of this kind of thing around; Schools which plan to close on Friday due to a bike race which starts on Saturday because ‘the roads will be busy’ although not too busy for the teachers to drive to the airport for a long weekend no doubt, people who retired to villages sometimes inaccessible for days in winter writing letters to the local press about running out of Viagra on Saturday lunchtime and not being able to go for more out until after tea, and earnest looking men, brows furrowed beneath dark glass and plastic hats with proper shoes and everything riding the parcours and looking disapprovingly at local riders out for a spin and going the wrong way over the Côte de Somethingorother. Thank goodness then for the makers of this video who would not be found guilty by any court of takingitmuchtooseriously although they might get issued a ticket for shamelesslytakingthepiss out of something we’re all to supposed to be approaching as if it’s a natural disaster rather than a brilliant day out watching a bike race.
When its raining, or just a bit cold, when it’s simply a crap sunday afternoon and I’m feeling down I think of a few of my favourite things and I still feel bad but it’s better than what I’m supposed to be doing. Why don’t you try it. Here some of mine:
1. Jelly babies – the original and best in sports nutrition and, like bee’s wings and the stuff spiders’ webs are made of, yet to be replicated by modern science.
2. The internet – if it’s raining and you haven’t got a turbo then an hour spent browsing online bike shops or whimsical bike blogs is worth an hour in the saddle any day and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
3. Rubber overshoes – for when you spend so much time at online bikeshops your internet bandwith/credit card limit or partner’s patience runs out and you actually have to go outdoors and ride your bike. Putting my smurf shoes on before I go out is so much second nature over the winter I often turn up at meetings in them and they’re great in bed too if you have to share with someone with cold feet. They will probably bury me in mine, after having been killed by my partner for wearing them in bed.
4. Rapha – as well as producing their winter jersey which is super warm, has two instead of three back pockets so you can fit more stuff in them and avoids you having to wear a rustly sweaty cagoule like some rambler there are hours of entertainment to be had from the anti-Rapha green ink brigade on bike forums and in fact I frequently put on my posh jersey to check out my emails just because it makes the internet angry and I get a faster connection.
5. Sheep – for giving us all that merino stuff you can wear for a fortnight on the bike and it still smells better than most people’s fresh socks do by lunchtime and for giving us the game of ‘am I going to cross the road or am I going to stay on this verge eating grass’ as bike riders approach them down a steep hill.
6. Chris Boardman – for showing it’s alright to shave your legs if you stick the stubble back on your chin but being a straight man on Top Gear is best forgotten about.
7. Lemon Drizzle Cake – because you shouldn’t be carrying enough money on a bike ride to buy cocaine. If you like lemon, you like cake, and you like drizzle then why would you ever order anything else.
9. Mountain bikes – I know, I know but when I commuted by bike one of these was the thing to be on if you have to choose where to be on the road according to the traffic and not the state of the tarmac and if you can’t wait until it’s stopped snowing before you go out then fat nobbly tyres, a frame made of left over girders from the Transporter Bridge and hand gesture friendly handlebars are what you need. Like 4×4 cars though, mountain bikes belong in the city centre and are just plain wrong in the countryside, like wearing a stab proof vest in the Co-op or spraying graffiti on the vicar. If you’re heading out of town, get a proper bike.
10. Brown paper packages tied up with string – but only if they have cool bike stuff and free haribo in them otherwise I send them back return to sender with Inflatable Bike Helmet written in large letters on the parcel.
But then what do I know; if I wrote the Sound of Music then Christopher Plummer would have married the rich one, sent his irritating kids off to join the Hitler Youth and quit telling everyone he was in the navy of a landlocked country…
This week I was down in darkest West Riding checking out the pavé section of Stage Two of this year’s Tour de France. Not having a bike with me a wheeled laptop case served just as well. Compared to the kind of pebbly beach type pebbles of somewhere like Richmond Market Place or the sharp little so-and-sos of Dent High Street with which riders are familar here in the north of the county the cobbles of Haworth look like someone actually made them on purpose to go into a road surface rather than just dropped them in some wet mortar coming back from the river bed one day but these things are never great on wheels; car, bike or Samsonite. The upcoming Grand Départ is what Haworth, sitting high in the Pennines not far from the DMZ and beyond, Lancashire, is famous for, but subsidiary claims to historical significance include the Keighley and Worth Valley Line where The Railway Children was filmed and, for those few stony hearted folks for whom bike racing and Jenny Agutter’s father appearing through the steam do not cover the full range of human emotion, there are the Brontë Sisters who lived much of their lives in the village. The Parsonage where a twenty-something daughter of an Ulster preacher gave the Yorkshire moors a human voice is a place of pilgimage for those who like their novels as black as their expresso but the tearooms and souvenir shops of Main Street don’t really reflect the Haworth of 150 years ago, or even the Haworth outside of that one street of today, but after the day is done and as the light fades you can put on your Nikes and take a run out through the churchyard which those lasses looked out on every morning when they drew the curtains to let in the sun and every evening when they pulled them back to shut out the night, head up over Penistone Hill, cross the road which leads down to the reservoir and follow the track past the derelict farmhouse towards the falls and then up onto the moor where from Top Withens you would be able to see just about forever if it wasn’t nearly dark and you can still hear the same wind in the same grass, smell the same dampness in the air, and feel the same chill through your bones and through your soul that could be felt by those that came up here those three short lifetimes ago.
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.
Reflecting upon The first world war it can be easy to dwell on the negative but it is worth remembering in this centenary year that had the politicans of a century ago foreseen the shameless exploitation of their tragic decisions by the book publishers and BBC documentary makers of a century later and, horrified, found a diplomatic solution to their differences the world might never have seen the birth of the king of sweets. For Yorkshire folk, whose memory of those dark days remains understandably coloured by being shelled by the imperial german navy, it is worth recalling that on the centenary backwards of the Tour de France visiting Sheffield the war to end all wars led to that city’s hitherto most notable connection to cycling, although for those of a certain age Malcolm Elliott probably figures in that calculation somewhere too, that nectar of the gods, that elixir of youth, that silver child shaped bundle of gelatine set in a sea of overpriced energy products, the jelly baby. The jelly baby, of course, began in 1918 as the peace baby, marking the start of the brief pause until the next world war. As well as reminding us of the armistice, which turned out to be not terribly permanent so not all it’s cracked up to be really, the jelly baby reminds us of the days before doctors told us not to eat sweets but to knock back prescription drugs by the packetload instead for the good of our health when The Doctor went around giving them out liberally to everyone he met, defusing many a potential conflict in the process and poignantly causing us to wonder what the world might have been like if jelly babies had been invented before the first world war and not after it.
The jelly baby, from a bike rider’s point of view, is almost the perfect fuel. It is small, doesn’t melt or get sticky, contains energy giving starch and protein providing gelatine, is inexpensive, easy to stash about the person and for the health and safety minded comes in a variety of high-viz colours. The only disadvantage is the starch dusting which remains on your fingers and therefore on everything else you touch. This is the reason most pro cyclists have white handlebar tape. The jelly baby is consumable in small discreet units; you don’t have to finish the bag once opened like you have to finish one of those awful gels or energy bars that some people fill themselves with for breakfast, lunch and tea. Hills to the confectionary cognescenti are measured not as category one, two or three but as a one jelly baby, two jelly baby or three jelly baby climb, the greatest mountain ascents being HC; requiring half a carton. Food fads may come and go, cycling fashions wax and wane, technologies appear then vanish but whatever and wherever you ride you’ll never bonk with Brilliant, Bubbles, Baby Bonny, Boofuls, Bigheart and Bumper up your sleeve. Dave ‘marginal gains’ Brailsford may attribute his team’s success to only allowing his riders to eat the red ones and making them bite the head off first but for me the jelly baby is for everyone. Jelly babies are the reason bike jerseys have pockets. The Von Schlieffen Plan and Treaty of Brest-Litovsk may now be just exam crib notes on the back of a history students’ hand (well, they are on my hand; that indelible ink really does what it says on the label) but Jelly babies are living history. Cycling is nothing without tradition so do the right thing by your sport and your country; bite the legs off a small orange child (but not the german haribo one, obviously) today and keep the flame alive.
It’s always nice to get a book as a gift. Firstly the giver has assumed you can read which is always very flattering for a start, secondly they know you are not a Kindle type of person because all those repeated viewings of the Terminator films have made you cautious of technology because the world dominating Skynet had to have started somewhere so why not an electronic version of Fifty Shades of Grey so you prefer word on printed page, and thirdly they know you well enough to have a good stab at getting you something on a subject that interests you out of all the areas that people write books about, many of them unbelievably nothing to do with cycling, which means they have put some thought into it, even asked others. To give someone a book and get it right therefore is a beautiful thing and the person who gave me a copy of Harold Briercliffe’s Cycling Touring Guide for Northern England gave the gift not only of the book itself but also of being able to sigh thank f**k for not another self vindicatory waste of woodpulp by or about some doping ex pro.
The cycling world of today seems so much further away than even the sixty or so years seperating us from the one Briercliffe knew. Our consumerist obsession with shiny bling, with possessions as badges of status, is in start contrast to that austere land of post war rationing and the technology available today to someone even of modest means in both bikes and kit would have been beyond the wildest dreams of even the best funded and dedicated outdoor types of that time. In 1947 when this book was written Sputnik I was yet to begin beaming Strava data to cycling earthlings and instead of being merely an ipad posing station bike handlebars still had room for bells, baskets and those extra brake levers we’re not allowed to have any more, many of the rural lanes referred to in the book had only recently seen tarmac for the the first time, and in some cases at it turned out the last time until the Tour de France organisers came and gazed ashen faced at the state of our roads, and only girls and classical actors wore tights.
At first glance you might think that cyclists were a pretty soft bunch back in those days. The author suggests a 113 mile tour of my patch of Yorkshire over four days for example, a distance similar to the annual Etape du Dales (how we pursuaded the french to bring their bike race here when that is the kind of thing we do to their language remains a mystery) bikesportiveride which even your correspondent finished last time around in three and he is forever recommending the reader to abandon their bike and go and see some vista or attraction on foot when the word is that organisers of rides like the Etape position snipers along the course to take out any participants who look like they might be even thinking of getting off to push. What you soon understand though is that this was a generation which grew up riding unmetalled roads through proper hard winters with rudimentry kit and who when the road ran out just picked up their bike and carried it over the fell, a practice known as pass storming. They then went off to fight World War Two for a few years, came home and got straight back on their bikes.
In common with his contemporary and fellow Lancastrian Alfred Wainwright’s guides to the Lakeland fells, what you get from Harold Briercliffe’s guides to the highways and byways of nineteen forties Britain is not a mundane set of directions and maps, but a little sense of the very real freedom and escape that cycling gave folks like you and me back in those days and which maybe some of us lose sight of a touch from time to time, a little reminder for when you’re admiring some grand view that folks in corduroys and cycle clips with thermos flasks and downtube shifters admired it long before you got there on your two wheeled spin off from the space programme, and, perhaps, just a little bit of inspiration.
Every blog must have a viewpoint, and this is mine. There is even a sign which says viewpoint although as is so often the case you have to cross the road and walk a few metres up the hill to actually get the best view. Sometimes I do in fact stop here and look at the view. When I am old, whenever that might be, I will drive up here and sit next to my car in a folding chair of a tasteful floral design reading the paper and drinking warm tea from the lid of my thermos flask. I will probably not do this in late December in a gale force wind in a gap between the downpours of rain and sleet because I won’t be so desperate for daylight then but I could not stop coming here altogether. I come up here when it is cold and windy and I have not got the get up and go to get up and go very far, I come here when it’s dark because I could ride this road with my eyes closed anyway, I come here when I’m working and just need to get out of doors, I come here when I’ve tinkered with something on the bike and don’t want far to walk back if my new handlebar tape makes both the wheels fall off, I come here on a late summer afternoon when I’ve already been for a ride in the morning but don’t know when it will next be warm enough to go out without a coat on, I come here early in the morning if there is something that although less important than riding my bike I probably should go to so people don’t think I am obsessed. Every time the view is different. Many times the view is absent. Folks have been looking at the view long before me, long even before there was a sign advising them to look at the view. On the road over the moor I would not be surprised to encounter a coach and horses driven by a man in a long coat and tall hat. What I am more likely to encounter is lost teenagers with green painted faces and automatic weapons who miss their mams, the fell rescue team on a weeknight exercise to practice looking for lost MTBers and surly ewes congregating on the lane as the tarmac radiates the last of the day’s heat back to the sky where it came from a few hours before. One day I will meet that coachman, and the ghosts of everyone who travelled this road across the moor because with the number of times I’ve ridden this way I will be one of them and some future blogger who has stopped to take this picture is going to write about how they were sure they heard a flapping rain jacket, a clunking gear change and a voice softly coaxing the sheep to get off the f***g road but when they turned around there was just the wind and the grass and a bidon sprung by a pothole from the bottle cage of a bike that wasn’t there.
This time of year more than ever as people look forward to a few well earned days off when they can spend time with their beloved
bikes families it falls to blogs like this to wear their social consciences on their sleeves and to good people like you to think of those less fortunate than yourselves. Imagine, if you can, if every time you went out for a bike ride instead of your fast light bike and proper cycling gear you had only a massively heavy bit of disgarded agricultural machinery to ride and if you had to wear daft baggy shorts with a rucksack on your back like some rambler trying to look fashionable and cool but only having an early eighties aerobics video to work from. Imagine if everytime you came to a hill on your bike you had to get a lift to the top in a van because you were only able to ride down hills, not up them. Imagine if old ladies on shopping bikes kept a tally scratched on their fully laden baskets of how many times they had dropped you. Yes, in this year’s Northernbike appeal we’re asking you to think of people who ride mountain bikes.
If you come back from a ride all covered in mud and crap it means you’ve either crashed, accidentally stumbled into a cross event or somebody stole your mudguards while you were out. For mountain bikers this is how they end every ride. Why not help an MTBer by offering them a much needed christmas bath, or if that is too much, just a cold hose down in the garden would be a welcome gift to them and show them how much you care. MTBers often experience loneliness as when they go out for a ride they can’t hear each other talk over the noise of their big fat soft nobbly tyres and they are too out of breath to get any words out anyway. This christmas, if you happen upon a mountain biker whilst out on a ride instead of whizzing past them, glancing back only to grin at their little red puffing mud spattered face, why not get off your bike and walk alongside them as they ride to make them feel that society hasn’t forgotten them completely. Why not invite them into your home, particularly if you have a bungalow or a stairlift as remember they can’t go up hills, and make them feel at ease by lying face down in your herbacious border, calling everyone dude and decanting that special bottle of Nuits St Georges you’ve been saving for christmas into a platypus backpack and sucking it out of a bendy rubber tube.
It’s easy to forget that not everyone is as lucky as us. This year, all I ask is you think for a moment about your local mountain biker. If you want to make a donation then £1 will buy them some shower gel, £20 will fund a pair of mudguards and £500 will get them a proper bike. It’s not the money that is really important here though. The main thing is to walk a mile in their shoes as they will walk many miles every ride in them. Yes, all I’m really asking is that you show that you respect them and that you love them for one day, then you can go back to normal on Boxing Day. Thank you for caring.
One thing which perhaps helps to distinguish England’s north east from some other parts of the country is the sky, also our balance of payments surplus in manufacturing, so two things, and when we go out for tea it’s because we like the food and not because the restaurant is owned by some gurning celebrity cokehead off the telly, three things then, but the sky must be one of the main ones. Other places have sky too but sometimes it’s not as obvious and visible and the north east has recently received official confirmation of the sky’s general quality and awesomeness. Of course that whole dark skies star gazing reserve thing is very much centred up in Northumberland and essentially all it means is the county council there is too tight to turn on any of the streetlights. In my own area though we contribute to the science of intergalactic study in our own way by riding around with bike lights which are bright enough to be seen by astronomers on other planets. I’m sure I should be getting a grant for that or something. Maybe if I ever set up my own bike racing team using my encylopeadic knowledge of the professional scene it will have the word sky in the name and I’ll make a few bob that way.
I haven’t seen much of the sky recently, mainly because I took the bike down to BBC headquarters and have been riding around its deserted corridors while they have all been in South Africa. It’s not just me that misses the sun. Lack of familiarity with the concept of sunshine led to advisory articles in the local press when the weather turned warm for a spell back in the summer reassuring local people not to be alarmed and go calling the Ministry of Defence UFO hotline. This certain disappointment amongst north east folk with the star we orbit is possibly why we are so keen to see if there are any better ones a bit further away. It also means we get quite excited when our absentee giver of all warmth and light does make an appearance. On Thursday there was a quite spectacular sunrise, a real humdinger (genuine meteorlogical term), an all encompassing glowy pinkness which seemed to wrap around us from horizon to horizon instead of just teasing us from somewhere out over the North Sea as it usually does. ‘Did you see the sky this morning?!’ asked the person with whom I share my life when there is no cycling on TV when I got home from work. ‘Did you see the sky yesterday morning?!’ asked my boss as we drove to a Friday meeting in the bossmobile, which is like my car except stuff doesn’t fall off it if it goes over forty five.
Hoping there would still be some sky this weekend when I had some time to hang out with it at more length I rode out expectantly on my bike. It didn’t look hopeful. I rode up through the string of little villages that follow the line of the big east-west road as it heads off over the hill but which remain unknown to the wagons and caravans heading to Cumbria and it was cloudy, then I rode up the hill which climbs through the dreary conifer plantation between nowhere in particular and nowhere else very important and it was grey, then I headed down into the valley which joins onto my valley and it was gloomy but then just before turning onto the last bit of road which leads down to the main drag which takes me home the sun came out. The light shone coruscatingly perpendicular to the angle of the hillside on the high eastern bank, bathing every contour, every terrace, every hillock and hollow, every stone wall, every boulder, every brown patch of dead bracken, every shivering bare hawthorn, every grey abandoned level, tip and hush, every particle of chimney smoke from the farm between the road and the fell, and every tired, fed up and disillusioned bike rider on their way home in that glorious warm fabric-conditioner-advert softness that only the December sun can give. Half an hour later it was raining, not long after that it was dark.
Every year it happens. Winter starts, I’m thirty miles from home, at the top of a hill and wearing flip flops, and nobody had told me about it. Yesterday the first snow fell on my under dressed shoulders as they, along with the equally unprepared rest of me, my feet being the most keen to carry on kidding themselves it was still summer having insisted on riding two hours in the pouring rain then the sleet then hail then the proper cold white stuff without putting their smurf shoes on. In the weather’s defence though it wasn’t so much that the snow was falling from the clouds on to me as me having gone up to the cloud to meet it; more a case of me intruding into the weather’s day rather than the other way around. It wasn’t even proper snow really, just that kind of not quite ready stuff like the frothy first pull on the bar pump when a new beer barrel’s been put on. It felt like I’d turned up at Winter’s house before she’d finished getting dressed and she’d anwered the door in her curlers and dressing gown with a sigh of it’s not you, it’s me; I’m just not ready to settle yet. Maybe I’ll give it a couple of weeks and catch her on a better day next time.
I don’t know why I’m always surpised by the arrival of the cold weather. I can look at the weather forecast, although I suspect the boffins in Exeter just look out of the window of their South Devon office and simply knock off a couple of degrees of temperature and add a couple of mph of wind speed to draw up the Pennine chart. I can look out of my own window but I lack the view to see what is happening a thousand feet feet above my house and three hours in the future. I can look at the calender but I’ve frozen half to death in June and sat in the garden soaking up rays in February. Maybe in the back of my mind I expect a phone call from Brailsford telling me to put your coat on sonny and not to take it off until he phones again in May. Ben Swift, supporter of the charity ride I was taking part in may have got that call from big Dave but I was probably too fast for him to catch me up and pass on the message. Well, OK maybe not. It is more likely part psychological reluctance to face up to the end of summer and part failure to remember where I put the warm gear I bought in the sales last spring, and when I do find it part horror at how all the ice cream I ate in my summer holidays seems ironically incompatible with the italian sizing of the stuff which I’m sure fitted back at Easter that means I’m always so unprepared.
After the rain, after and hail and sleet and snow, and after the lady making the coffee at the village hall half way around told me you do have to go on you know, you can’t stay here the sun came out but there are less tangents to go off on from that and anyway my feet stayed cold. The rider who founded the ride on Saturday took a knock to his cycling but it was cycling which he credits with helping to get back on his feet as well. Keen as I was on riding my bike as a youngster I was never made of the stuff that folks like him and riders such as Swift are made off. The Chemo Classic however is all about celebrating being alive and riding bikes and if you’ve got those two things, and not only that but can ride now and again with people who know more about both of those things than you do, then wet feet are just a detail.