Early spring in Northern England. April 24, to be precise.
Around that time a couple of years ago, my good friend Matt had invited me along for a quick overnight bike trip. We rode bikes, we talked, we drank coffee and ate cake, we rode some more, we camped, we drank beer until the small hours, and we desperately tried to sleep in the freezing overnight conditions.
It was a blast.
The need to escape was once again growing strong in both of us, our respective lives dispensing their usual frustrations. However, my first world problems were mere trifles in comparison to the truly hellish couple of years Matt was going through.
Although, we did have fun selling stuff at the cycle jumble in January.
If I remember correctly, he let that brand new SP dynamo hub go for £25, despite my clearly thorough advice on how to price it.
Being the crazy fool he is, my lanky friend here is training for some pretty impressive trips this year. Something about a solo, unsupported bike ride across the Alps (camping), and an equally silly hike in the same part of the world (again camping). Me? I hadn’t been on the bike since… November or something. Needless to say, I was horribly out of shape.
A coast to coast ride has been on my list for a number of years now, so of course I jumped at the chance when Matt suggested we ride the Way of the Roses.
It was just the excuse I needed to get back on the bike. To shed some weight. To improve my declining mental state.
So, I started training. In the early days, I could barely ride 10 miles around the local country park; by mid-April, I was boring my Facebook friends with pictures from the 20, 30, 40 mile rides I was doing night after night. I was riding my Surly Ogre over terrain it simply wasn’t set up for. I was pushing myself. I was chasing the sunset every night. It was all coming back to me. I was feeling strong. I was eating better, drinking less, and losing weight. I was feeling happier. I was forgetting my worries.
The weeks preceeding our trip were bathed in glorious sunlight, and unseasonally high temperatures. I pulled my Surly Troll off the hook I’d hung it on so long ago, and fitted a set of flared drop bars, with TRP HY/RD hydraulic brakes, and bar end shifters. I treated myself to a reassuringly expensive hydrophobic down filled sleeping bag (more about that later), and packed up my gear. It was time to go. An indeterminate number of days lay ahead of us. We planned to camp every night, and we’d make choices about when / where to stop en route. We were going to take it easy. No worries. No rush.
On the train from Manchester to the start line at Morecambe Bay, we remarked on the angry cold front which was rolling in from the North with a vengeance. The forecast gales, rain, and snow seemed determined to ruin our trip. We tried to stay positive, but we couldn’t help letting our moods slump a little.
Looking across to the beautiful hills of Cumbria, we warmed our faces in what we were certain was the last of the sunshine. We took the obligatory cheesy start line photos and pushed off towards Lancaster.
The route started with great promise, taking us out of Morecambe on a traffic-free path through the woods where we exchanged pleasantries with the other trail users.
Before long, we were drinking in the views afforded by the River Lune, and I was explaining the very specific purpose of each of the 5 pairs of gloves I’d brought along. In the end, I used only 3 pairs, but I still say the peace of mind was worth the extra grams.
Turning onto quiet country lanes, we saw signs for a ‘Scarecrow Festival’ in a nearby village. Our attention was soon drawn to a new distraction, however, as we pondered the ins and outs of a such a thing. It wasn’t until we rounded the corner proper that we saw the third T in this sign.
Cruel and unusual.
As it turned out, the route would take us directly through Wray, the village hosting the Scarecrow Festival. A kind of eerie quiet held the village, with oversized characters outside almost every dwelling, shop, and pub staring back at us from their straw-filled heads. Everything was represented; from Donald Trump to Donald Duck, The 3 Little Pigs, Death Himself, and even a woman doing Pilates.
Behind each of the increasingly creepy creations lay a tale, which it seemed would be told by the property owner at set times. Sadly, we’d arrived too late, or too early for storytime.
The lure of the ‘open for refreshments sign’ was undeniable. Inside the hall, I was delighted to find plastic tablecloths, hot soup, sandwiches, and homemade cakes; all available for tuppence ha’penny, and served up with great humour by the good people of the village. We filled our bellies, and took it as a good sign that we hadn’t burst into flames upon stepping foot into what turned out to be part of the church.
With fear of damnation fading, we purchased rice crispie cakes for the road, and made our polite exit. The bikes we hadn’t bothered to lock up outside were, predictably, unmolested; save for a brusque Cumbrian gent who quizzed Matt about our trip.
We pushed on towards Settle, the caramel from the rice crispie cakes giving us a much needed boost as the sharp climbs continued to come and go. We were both feeling unusually fresh, and our spirits were high from the freedom of the road. The sun continued to shine, and we were grateful for every minute of it.
We coined a new phrase or two on this trip, my favourite of which is a new verb: ‘Contador’. To get out of the saddle, to dance on the pedals with pure contempt for the incline.
“They Contadored their way up that climb.”
And so we did. We Contadored our way up every single one of those climbs on day 1. Almost in sync, we’d shun dropping a cog, grab the hoods, climb out of the saddle, and loudly compliment each other on the chosen gear ratio. Alberto would be so proud.
I knew then, I wasn’t in anything like the shape I used to be, but I knew I was fresh. I knew it was going to be a good trip. And on roads like this, who was I to complain about a little bit of climbing?
Travelling as we were West to East, the stiff Northerly was a biting crosswind, often testing our resolve, and occasionally, testing our bike handling skills.
In Settle, we stopped for a warming cuppa, and made the decision not to camp that night. I could tell Matt was disappointed, as was I.
Picking hail out of my beard, I pointed at the huge black cloud that had been chasing us all afternoon, and Matt promptly booked us into the youth hostel in nearby Malham.
I popped into the local bike shop and had a rather confusing chat about energy drinks. Eventually, they understood what I was looking for, and overcharged me for some horrid lemon flavour powders. When I checked later on, the expiry date was mere weeks away, so I guess there must not be much call for such things in Settle.
Beyond the Forest of Bowland, we entered the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and the scenery just kept getting better. More Contadoring followed until we reached a plateau promising a spectacular descent into Malham.
As we approached, Matt told me about a natural stone amphitheatre near Malham; and, wouldn’t you know it, our route took us right alongside it.
I tipped my front wheel over the top of the descent, looked back at Matt with a wry smile on my face, and said:
“Be safe, my friend. I’ll see you at the bottom.”
You see, Matt is a lettuce. A great wet lettuce. Or, perhaps, he has a more healthy fear of death than I do. Either way, I like to descend. And I like to descend as fast as possible. Sometimes, that’s too fast. As my Garmin flashed up 41.4 miles per hour, I thought perhaps, here on this single lane road with its stone walls and blind turns, perhaps this is one of those times.
Reluctantly, I pulled on the brakes, and the TRP HY/RD calipers grabbed my brake discs, slowing me down better than I ever imagined they would; especially in these conditions, especially with so much weight on the bike. My confidence only increased, and I continued descending at a frightening pace, braking hard and late into the corners. Until…
“What’s that burning smell?” I asked myself.
Taking my eyes off the road for a second, I looked down at my front disc which was getting severely warped by the abuse I was giving it. On the next corner, I pulled the brakes, and nothing happened. My pads had overheated, and I had to plough into a field gate to stop myself.
When a pale-faced Matt joined me some time later, my discs had cooled off, and (almost) straightened out again.
“What’s that burning smell?” He asked me.
The remainder of the descent was, shall we say, interesting? I was using the brakes as little as possible, looking over the walls for oncoming traffic, and apexing every turn, getting as close to the walls as I dared. My brakes were juddering now, sending horrible vibrations through the forks. But, we made it down into Malham without further incident.
Checking into the excellent YHA, we were both taken aback by how they’ve changed since we were young uns. I tell you, I’ve stayed in worse hotels, and paid a whole lot more money. We’d somehow managed to bag an ensuite room to ourselves, in which we argued over who got the bunk bed.
The bikes spent the night securely locked away in a dedicated bike shed, and we headed for the pub. Much hilarity followed, along with more beer, an excellent meal, and a piece of pork pie for dessert. What? I was hongry.
By the time we headed for bed, the outside temperature had dropped to close to freezing, and there had been some small snow flurries. I was glad of our indoor digs, but was eager to camp. I unrolled my sleeping bag onto the lower bunk and slept like a log.
Maybe the weather would be kinder to us the next day…
All photographs courtesy of Northern Walker.