The Yellow Brick Road

The “Cotton Famine Road”.

Oakenhoof, the folk dance/music/arts group which my daughter, Anya, is a member of were invited by the BBC to dance for them yesterday while they filmed for a documentary at the iconic Rooley Moor Road, Catley – or the “cotton famine road” which dominates the hills above Rochdale.

There was also the unveiling of a plaque which commemorates the part which the local people played during the “cotton famine” of the 1860s, when the American Civil War led to blockades which prevented cotton being exported from confederate ports.

The cobbled path is a striking and important feature of the landscape. It can be seen from miles away, looking like a yellow brick road leaving the town and weaving its way over the moors (and now in between the turbines of a large wind farm).

The people of Lancashire depended on cotton, yet, instead of siding with the cotton-producing Confederate States, many impoverished Lancashire cotton workers expressed support with the Union’s cause – in particular, with support for the abolition of slavery – hence the BBC documentary on black history being filmed yesterday.

It was a stance which Abraham Lincoln lauded:

“…I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis…
“I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”


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Without cotton, there was little work. As the cotton famine grew, Britain’s Parliament passed The Public Works (Manufacturing Districts) Act which allowed the towns to borrow money at a low interest rate and create work opportunities. These included “…improvements in Catley Lane”.

And so it was that the back-breaking task of building a road, or cobbled path, over the moors to Bacup was offered to many unemployed workers.

An ode to old photos

Johanna and Anya were rummaging around through a box of old photographs tonight when they came across a piece of family history – which was the cause of much merriment. It was a flier created for the short-lived death metal band in which I “played” bass guitar in the late 1980s.

Monolith was a glorious mess. We had one song, Evil Death — a doom-laden slow burner in which improvised and unintelligible lyrics were gargled over a looping three-note riff.

The four members balanced the scales quite perfectly. The brothers Glynn — Duncan and Martin — provided the musical talent which our song hid quite well. Brain-on-a-stick Mark Wallwork and I could offer little more than great enthusiasm.

Monolith
Monolith

The moment that Anya entered the room brandishing a faded piece of A4 paper and exclaiming, between tears of laughter, “look what we found!”, I knew what it was.

27 years disappeared instantly as I stared at the photo, with its collage of newspaper headlines and black and white images.

I remembered them all.

The pig in wellington boots. The mouse which had been copied from an against animal testing campaign leaflet. The story of a drunken man who had nailed himself to a bench on a seaside pier, for fear of falling off.

And the carefully curated words, chosen to instil terror into the reader: Butcher, Gunman, Fear, Demolish, Arson, There’s Nothing Left, Attacking, Chemical Leak, Piercing Sound, Pain, Man in Pylon Horror. And, randomly, in the top left hand corner: “Builders of Distinction”.

And, of course, there was our own photo: Duncan – with sock on ear, no doubt influenced by Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Martin, channelling his inner “lost boy” with shades and vampirish pose; Mark – ever the contrarian – facing away from the camera, gazing into the distance. And me, defying all death metal convention and posing with my batman-stickered bass guitar, a big grin spread right across my face.

 

There is something special about rooting through old photos – in fact, the whole process of creating them was quite magical, too. Taking a roll of film to be developed, opening the pack a day or two later to find that half of them are useless – red-eyes, closed-eyes, shrouded in darkness.

Inconvenient, true, but many of those that we used to keep in a box are nowadays be more likely to be deleted immediately, or ignored forever on a dusty old laptop.

I hope that isn’t the case.

To combat that, we have undertaken a project at home to create photobooks of our favourite pictures from each year since we became digitised.

One recent image which will take pride of place was taken just a few weeks ago. Having only just turned eleven, Leo is already a more accomplished musician that I. He plays in a folk band called Little Folk, and also attends the local music service “Rockschool” for more meaty fare.

It was with Rockschool that he was allowed the privilege of representing Rochdale Music Service in a showcase at the legendary Manchester venue Band on the Wall with his band The Skull Krushers.

And here they are. Note the little fella with the guitar and a beaming face. A chip off the old block.

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Commuting by Bicycle

18th February 2016. A year to the day since I first started commuting to work by bicycle. In that time I’ve lost weight, improved my fitness and saved money (sort of – that’s another story.)

Although I have also experienced a number of close encounters with large vehicles – and the odd motorist’s rant – there have not been, perhaps, as many as I first feared. And I certainly haven’t got as wet, cold or sweaty as you might imagine. (I get sweatier on the train, to be honest).

I am that elusive beast which all cycling lobby groups search for – a poster boy for the Sustrans generation. The transient commuter: from car (very infrequently, but I have done in the past) – to public transport – to cycling to work.

Why did I decide to commute by bike? I had tried it once before, in my previous job. It was the summer, I was a new convert to the world of road cycling, the commute was around 12 miles – small town to small town, and I was running down my redundancy notice period. Perfect time to trial it for a couple of weeks and break out of the metal box.

Once back commuting to Manchester City centre, the journey lengthened by a few miles, so I reverted to rail travel. However, struggling to fit in fitness training for the Tour de Yorkshire sportive which I entered last year, I decided that I would give it a go for the three days a week I was in the office.

 

The 30 mile round trip is not for everyone – particularly with an uphill home leg – but I soon got used to the flow of the traffic, the not having to pay for a faltering (at best) rail service, and the surprised questions of “you cycle HOW FAR!?!”

 

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Just this week, the Manchester Evening News ran an article on the worsening commute times into the city centre. Naturally, the commute to which they refer is that undertaken by car – after all, if the Evening News still does one thing well, it is its riling of readers by using a tried and tested formula:

 

We all know that nothing enrages and engages a readership quite as well as tales of the “war” on the poor motorist.

 

And so, we read of the shocking average commute times into the city centre via various routes. Concrete anecdotal evidence was supplied the paper:

 

One driver who called the M.E.N complained it was taking him 30 minutes to get a third of a mile across town.

He said: “I’ve been commuting into Manchester for decades and it’s the worst I’ve ever known it.”

 

 

I thought to myself a little bit about the experience of Mr “Driver”, and wondered…

 

 

Let’s give Mr Driver the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is travelling a distance further than a third of a mile to reach the city centre.

 

We’ll also assume both that his journey through hell ends in the city centre – that’s just based on my feeling that travelling directly through the centre at rush hour wouldn’t be the best idea if he was going to a destination on the other side – and we’ll also assume that that he hadn’t just picked two random time splits to make his point.

 

So, we can agree that Mr Driver has probably reached a third of a mile from his final destination when his 30 minute crawl begins.

 

My question to Mr Driver is – if this has been getting worse for decades, why continue to endure it? Why not remove yourself from the equation? Even if still commuting the majority of your journey by car, there are numerous car parks dotted around the outskirts of the centre – I’ll bet you passed one just moments before your last third of a mile.

I’ll bet it was even cheaper than your usual one.

 

And what even is a third of a mile? (It is 586.67 yards). How did you arrive at this particular measurement? (I have an acquaintance who measures his distances in leagues. Perhaps it is a similar affliction.)

 

Now, Mr Driver may, indeed, HAVE to travel into the city centre by car for his work. But the number of folk that REALLY do must be small.

 

When I moved to my current address some years ago, it was a new estate built next to a playing field where the local football and cricket teams played once a week. The plans made by the builders had to include proposals for a car park to be built for the use of those playing.

The reason stated was to ensure that cars were not parked obstructing the roadways and housing – “as studies suggest that those travelling by car will park at the very closest proximity to their destination, provisions for a car park must be made.”

 

Have we hit the crux of the matter yet?

 

Never fear, the MEN has also been informing us that help is at hand – and it won’t even cost us millions to implement. Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton, has hatched a plan to ease Mr Driver’s woes. After all, it works in Liverpool, and everything!

His plan?

Removing bus lanes.

Mr Stringer’s view is that:

“Evidence so far is that bus lanes are damaging the economy and making travel times slower for everybody.

“We need to look at whether they are an ideological decision only good for profits and not for the travelling public.”

 

Bus companies and Transport for Greater Manchester have been quick to react to his suggestion.

“Buses are able to carry a significantly higher number of passengers and therefore maximise the efficient use of road space to and from the city centre.

“A bus occupies the same amount of highway as two or three cars but is able to carry up to 70 passengers.”

 

So, 70 people can fit on a rush-hour bus. When gliding down one of the (poorly maintained) bus/taxi/cycle lanes that the council currently provides, I must pass 30 or more stationary cars. Even if every one of those was only half full with two occupants per car (here’s a clue: the majority usually aren’t half full), that is an enormous amount of traffic which could be taken off the road in one fell swoop.

 

Cycling to work is not for everyone, I understand that. And certainly not the distance I cover (although I know many people who do more than I). However, as cities continue to grow – and continue to draw in workers from further afield, often to the detriment of our smaller towns – the problem is, indeed, going to get worse.

Resources will become more stretched, queues will get longer – and that is without factoring in any of the necessary measures that are put in place to curb pollution levels.

 

A solution lies not only with the powers that be – but also with you. If you are sat in traffic, complaining about the traffic; don’t forget – you are the traffic.

But then, if covering less than 600 yards in 30 minutes is not going to get you out of the car, I’m not really sure what will.

 

 

I can see that traffic jams cause anger. And, yes, delayed, oversubscribed, and under-serviced public transport also causes anger.

In contrast, studies suggest that cycling to work makes you happier.

 

That might just be true. The only time that I have seen an angry cyclist is when they have been subjected to a life-threatening confrontation with a motor vehicle. Go figure.

Stuart Howard-Cofield: A River Runs Through It

+Johanna Howard-Cofield​, +Anya Howard-Cofield​, +Leo Howard-Cofield​ and I spent the day helping the clear up in Littleborough following yesterday’s floods.
I’m really proud of the kids giving their day up and humbled by the way the community – farmers, publicans, electricians, plumbers, off-duty firemen, faith and community groups of all creeds, everyone – all came together to help those whose property had been flooded.

via Stuart Howard-Cofield: A River Runs Through It.

An even bigger area was affected just a few miles further up the valley with Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd (among others in the North) all suffering – just three years since the last big flood which prompted new defences being put in place. Naturally, the reaction has been the same, with people coming from miles away to lend a hand.

(For my cycling friends, to help place the area, Mytholmroyd is where Cragg Vale, the “longest hill in England” begins).

We returned tired, hungry and dirty – but happy that we could at least come home to a hot shower and some comfort. It could be a while before some of those affected, whose furniture and belongings were carted off in skips today, can do the same. Hopefully it won’t be too long.

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Beware the Red Mist in the Fog

My first real bout of verbal abuse as a cyclist…

FOG ALERT!

All the weather forecasts were in agreement. Thick fog patches were to make the morning commute hazardous – “take care out there” was the warning. As it happened, the danger did not lie in the fog, but rather in the red mist which had descended over one driver I encountered on Monday morning.

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Ah yes, I now feel that I am a true cyclist. This is not by virtue of the fact that most weekends include a bike ride. Nor is it that I have toppled over, helplessly, when failing to unclip my clipless pedals. Neither is it that I commute regularly by bicycle or make shorter solo journeys on two-wheels by default, rather than jump in the car.

No.

I now feel like a cyclist because I have received my first road-rage rollicking.

Forget the attempted water-bombing, the moonies, and the random shouts poking fun from passing cars – all of which I have endured. On Monday morning at 7.15am, I received my first true verbal abuse.

If the danger posed by our busy roads is not enough to put people off travelling by bicycle, the very many outbursts of rage and anger – which are, to be fair, displayed by road users of all denominations – might just seal the deal.

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Clearly, cyclists can be unpredictable – and not all are saints. However, without a metallic box for protection, people riding on bicycles are vulnerable road users who are open to the elements and – it would appear – open to abuse.

 

I once mused that the moment in which the train doors open on a commuter-filled platform is the moment in which the very worst of the human race is displayed. I had that wrong. For many, it is clearly the moment they get behind a steering wheel.

 

As I approach a large junction om my regular route, the two lanes heading in my direction become four. One, going left, leads to a motorway. Another, going right, leads to a side road. This is separated by a traffic island from the two “central” lanes. These two central lanes cross the junction, where one then forks left and the other right. (see image below)

I need to be in the right-hand of these two lanes so that I can take the road which forks right. It is a manoeuvre made all the more difficult after the lights, due to traffic joining the carriageway from the side junctions and further lights ahead.

With no cars around, I was approximately 100m from the lights at the junction as they turned red. I still signalled, although alone, and moved across to the right-hand lane of the central two.

(I didn’t actually take the centre of this lane, as entitled to, just in case a car approaching from behind wanted to race me to the red light – as often happens.)

Photo of junction courtesy of google streetview
Photo of junction courtesy of google streetmap

As I started to near the full length Advanced Stop Line (ASL), I heard a horn blasting from a speeding car behind me. I continued to the ASL, as the car took its position on the other side of the traffic island ready to make a right turn. I then became aware of an angry voice.

 

What followed was around a one-and-a-half minute diatribe which would have made Roy Chubby Brown shuffle uncomfortably in his seat. The gist of which, from what I could glean, was that this particular motorist – who appeared to be on the school run, judging from the young child sat in the back of the car – thought that I was being inconsiderate to her and impressionable youngster by

taking up half of of the f***ing road you f***ing moron

the “lady” in question also then gave me a few hints on where I should actually be positioned in the road. She shouted such helpful nuggets of advice as

get over to the f***ing side of the road instead of blocking it for everyone else dickhead

as she pointed repeatedly towards the gutter.

The “everyone else” in question were only just arriving and completely unaffected by my road positioning – as, indeed, was my judge.

 

Cyclescheme.co.uk gives clear advice on riding in traffic.

 

Riding close to the kerb ‘to keep out of the way of cars’ might feel safer. It isn’t. You should be at least half a metre out, and often a metre or more; sometimes you should be in the centre of your lane. Here you’ll be where drivers are looking, rather than in their peripheral vision.

Being seen is being safe.

You are not inconveniencing any driver who obeys the Highway Code: Rule 163 tells drivers to give cyclists ‘at least as much room as a car’ when overtaking. That means pulling out, going over the white line, and coming back in again – not squeezing past with inches to spare. Riding further out into the road forces drivers to overtake properly and prevents them overtaking where it would be dangerous to do so.

Cyclecheme.co.uk – Commuting’s Ten Commandments.

 

I believe that I showed impressive restraint to remain calm in the face of such adversity. I tried to politely – but forcefully – explain my position, and that of the highway code. I curtailed my language in front of her child. My words, however, were drowned out by her own as she wound up her window and continued to rant.

As the lights changed and we headed our separate ways, I received another lesson from my verbal assailant’s rules of the road manual, naturally interwoven with further choice examples from the rich tapestry that is the English language. Every day really is a school day.

Given the number of similar incidents I see and hear of every day, it is a miracle that it has taken so long for me to receive a verbal volley.

I was actually quite saddened that someone had taken time out from their busy morning schedule to get so wound up and angry. In the fog, you can only see as far as your headlights. Sadly, for some, the mist never really clears.

Nearly Lost You…

It goes without saying that one of the most frightening experiences when riding a bike is the “near miss”. The close encounters with much larger, faster objects – whether they be side on, head on, or accompanied by an engine roar from behind – are clearly a barrier to more people taking up life on two wheels.

A quick errand to the local shops, the school run, a short commute – all ought to be moments where a car can be left behind – yet there still remains reticence to the idea in the UK. Proposals such as “velocity” in Manchester and the creation of “mini-hollands” in London hint at a concerted effort to change both opinions and infrastructure.

However, leaving aside the evangelisation of Dutch-style bicycle culture – and also the near-constant drone of motorist/cycling/pedestrian arguments and misunderstandings, the University of Westminster has decided to hone in on one possible reason that many choose not to cycle.

According to the Near Miss Project website:

Near miss and related incidents are common, according to a pioneering study in Oxford in the early 1990s. More recent work in Middlesex suggests close passes (under 50cm) may happen with predictable regularity for commuting cyclists, while an Australian study highlights experiences of deliberate abuse and harassment.

 

In 2014, the University asked cyclists to agree to keep a one-day diary of near misses during October –

The author of the report, Dr Rachel Aldred, wrote in The Guardian last year:

Cycling injuries are more common than they should be in the UK, but a regular commuting cyclist might only experience a slight injury once every decade, with a much lower chance of serious injury. I’ve been cycle commuting most days for nearly 10 years and I’ve had a couple of very minor bumps (a grazed knee, bruised ribs). They are minor cautionary tales rather than heart-stopping moments.

The apparent discrepancy between the fear of cycling and actual injury figures has led to a lot of head-scratching. Why, when the real risk is so small, are people so reluctant to cycle? Why can’t they be rational and take into account the often substantial health benefits?

The under-researched area of the near miss can help solve this puzzle. Injuries may be comparatively rare, but what about scary incidents that don’t lead to injury? Could experiencing these, or even witnessing them, lead people to conclude cycling is too unpleasant or frightening? How frequent are they, and what do stories about near misses tell us?

The earlier highlighted incidents of “deliberate abuse and harassment” are another factor, aside from those of a life threatening nature, which point towards a hostile environment on the roads for cyclists – I, myself, have been waterbombed, “mooned” at, cat-called and deliberately revved-at in the last twelve months.

IMG_20150829_114311605_HDRLast month, I endured two frightening incidences (one with a bus, the other a lorry) which prompted me to report the drivers to their respective employers. I received the usual platitudes and a promise that “road safety education” remained of paramount importance.

I’m still braving the roads as they are and hoping that the effects of this promised education will be felt by all; with safer roads and better infrastructure, more will join. Build it, and they will come, they say. There can be no denying the benefits – health and fitness, cleaner air, less traffic jams, cheaper travel.

On 19th October this year, I kept another “one day diary” for the near miss project. Perhaps I’m becoming hardened to near-misses and toughened by the daily grind but with just one close pass each way, although relieved, I almost felt a little short-changed that I wasn’t adding more to the study. Ridiculous? Certainly.

Despite the apparent hostility towards cyclists whipped up by tales of “lycra louts” and “mamils” propagated by certain media outlets, a recent survey by Sustrans indicates that the general public actually backs a massive increase in spending on cycling infrastructure – with even those who said that they never use a bike also behind the idea.

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75% of those surveyed said they wanted to see greater investment in cycling, with people wanting an average of £26 per person to be spent out of the £300 that is currently spent on transport.

Currently, £4 per person is spent in England, and £12 per person in Scotland. 

Now that really is something to feel short-changed by.

 

 

Don’t you remember when you were young…?

…and you wanted to set the world on fire?

For this post, I have given up ReplaceWithBlog to my daughter Anya.

The National Citizen Service (NCS) is a programme for 16-17 years olds across England and Northern Ireland which helps aid personal and social development. Over the past month, my colleagues and I have been taking part in this programme.

Today’s youth are seen as an uncooperative, aggressive, lazy bunch who only care about themselves. For the majority this is not the case.

Teenagers have the potential to be so much more than the way that they are perceived. We fear that this potential may never be unlocked unless the mindset of both teenagers themselves, and society as a whole, changes.

As a part of our NCS project we are creating a short film about the misconceptions held towards the youth of today. The film will aim to fight stereotypes and show teenagers as they really are.

Our video will also help young people to see what they are capable of and hopefully inspire them to do more.

“Misconceptions” will be released to our YouTube channel on Friday 21st August. We would really appreciate it if you would take the time to watch it, and share it with friends and family.

Many thanks, Anya

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgeL71CgvO9VnNNaIEIF6uQ

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mis_conceptions?s=09

Instagram: https://i.instagram.com/misconceptions2k15/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/misconceptions2k15

Weighty Matters

In the final stage of the Criterium du Dauphine last week, Chris Froome produced a powerful performance which belied his slender frame, to take the overall prize. Despite looking to have too much time to claw back from the race leader Tejay van Garderen, Froome urged his teammates not to give up, believing he could still win the race.

Dauphine is often used to gauge riders’ form as it comes just before the big one, Le Tour de France. Froome’s performance hinted at him finding form at just the right time and a quick look at Betfair.com shows that he is rightly placed among the race favourites.

Sadly for Chris, he was unable to successfully defend his 2013 Tour de France win due to crashing out of the next year’s edition. Dauphine shows that he is ready to aim for the Yellow jersey again this year—and you wouldn’t put it past him. Even if he does, you suspect that— outside of cycling circles—the result will barely register.

Froome has an uncomfortable-looking style on the bike. He rarely looks up from his power-meter, he is stick-thin, and he has been likened in the past to a “demented spider meets praying mantis” when climbing. Off the bike, he is quiet and unassuming.

“The key to (Chris’s) success is his mental resilience. He might look like an unlikely strong man at first glance, but I wouldn’t let that fool you. Beneath the surface there is a real fighter. He’s a tough guy.” Sir Dave Brailsford on The Climb, Chris Froome’s Autobiography.

Weight matters in cycling, of course. Many upgrade-obsessive amateurs can be found weighing each new part that fit to their steed in a bid to bring down the total weight. The most important factor, though, is the cyclist’s own weight.

Despite his obvious strength, Team Sky’s website marks Froome down as weighing only 69kg—around ten and a half stone in old money.

Sir Bradley Wiggins is the charismatic “everyman” whose shadow is cast large over Froome and all other British riders. Thanks to his character and personality, he has transcended the world of pro-cycling. He is probably the reason why Froome’s measured performances, on and off the bike, will not create many waves outside the sport.

In 2009, Wiggins had just completed his first Tour de France. His performance exceeded expectations and hinted at future success, yet it was still a long way from the standards he achieved in his 2012 win. He spoke to the Guardian about the differences between track and road racing and the sacrifices required to succeed.

He laughs quietly – but it’s a rasping half-laugh, half-cough. It echoes again later when we walk through central London, and Wiggins talks about feeling so poorly, with his depleted body no longer able to fight the sniffles, sore throat and muscle-eating fatigue that followed his drastic weight-loss and ravaged immune system. He shed 20 pounds before the Tour started so that he could swap his power on the track for a skeletal lightness in the mountains. It is just one consequence of his epic tilt at sporting greatness. “I’ve been running at 4% body fat the last few weeks – and that’s quite dangerous. I’m starting to get sick now, a little ill, just from being run down. I’m just glad I’m now free to put a few pounds back on.”

Weighty matters of my own.

Weight matters. But as you can see from that quote, it is a very fine balancing act that professionals have teams of scientists and nutritionists on hand to help with.

I have always had a slender frame. My arms and wrists look as thin as Froome’s do, although the last couple of years has seen a little paunch appear around my stomach – a sign of my youth disappearing. However, immediately following my Tour de Yorkshire ride last month, my wife gasped with concern at my figure.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight, I hardly recognised you!” By sight only, it seemed true. I refused to weigh myself to add any fuel to her fire.

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My build up to the 89-mile hill-fest was a mixture of commuting in to work on black coffee only, ever increasing weekend ride lengths, and a large reduction in the amount of stodge I was consuming overall. No pies.

Since then, I have continued my 30 miles per day round-trip to the office and weekend rolls around the hills. I spend my days hungry, despite consuming what seems like very large amounts of food.

I have yet to find the right pie to power balance.

 

Le Tour de Yorkshire: My Ride Report

Just a few miles in and the sentences “it seemed a good idea at the time” and “what was I thinking?” had both been uttered innumerable times by myself and many others around me.

It was the day of the Tour de Yorkshire Ride, a Sportive event to coincide with stage 3 of Yorkshire’s Grand Depart legacy. The journey which would take us through a brooding, and at times desolate, Bronte country landscape. The weather Gods decreed that it would be undertaken in howling wind and rain that wouldn’t look out of place in the darkest moments of Wuthering Heights.

“What was I thinking?”, indeed!

The Maserati Tour de Yorkshire Ride would allow up to 6000 cycling enthusiasts to pave the way for the professionals on the Stage 3 route. Largely based on the full stage route, it would involve a number of tough categorised climbs and many other sharp ramps that, despite the official categorisation, would certainly have many pairs of legs screaming for mercy.

The excitement that built towards the day was tempered by the fact that my riding mate—and chief influence in the decision to take on the long (142km) route—could no longer make it. Never mind. I wasn’t passing up the chance to take on the challenge and ride the same roads that the pros would be speeding through later in the day.

Although it may not seem far to most keen cyclists, 142km (or 87 miles) was (un)comforatably longer than any ride I had previously completed in my 12 months or so of mid-life crisis. To prepare myself, training plans were pored over, scrapped and modified.

A “12 week plan” became a “7 week panic plan” became a “commuting to work with some weekend rides will have to do” sort of plan.

IMG_20150503_045957Sunday 3rd May arrived with the world either still asleep or falling asleep watching the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight. I found myself making my own Grand Depart for Leeds at 5am.

 

Last July, the Yorkshire weather played its part as the Tour de France snaked through the countryside. Early May can be a little more unpredictable, though. Where the county bathed in glorious sunshine last year, the amateur riders were greeted with something more like a 5 hour long power shower this time around.

And so, in a dark and damp Roundhay Park, I was ushered straight through the start line earlier than my allotted 7.06am. We were off.

One of my regular routes passes over Blackstone Edge and reaches the end of Cragg Vale, the “longest hill in England”. Just a few minutes walk from the summit there is a poem carved into the rocks. It is written by Simon Armitage, one of his “Stanza Stones”. This particluar stanza is called “Rain”.

Sunday’s route would pass within a few miles of my stomping ground, and the Stanza stone. The poem could not be more appropriate.

Be glad of these freshwater tears,

Each pearled droplet some salty old sea-bullet

Let it teem, up here where the front of the mind distils the brunt of the world.

(Full stanza can be found here).

And teem it certainly did.

One mile into the ride, and I was chatting to one wizened old two-wheeler. He was the safety officer of a nearby club and immediately announced that he was cutting his day short and going to go home. He actually lived on the route, knew its hills and profile, and deemed it unsafe. “This is no fun. The descents are dangerous in this weather, there will be other days…”

Just three or four miles into the journey he imparted a little advice on the first few descents, wished me luck and bade me farewell.

As I reached Chevin Forest, I looked in horror at the steep descent lay in front of me as streams of water rushed down the tarmac. Following a spill recently, I am very much a nervous cyclist when it comes to downhill. The lack of response from my brakes here did nothing to allay my fears, yet many zipped past without a care. I was glad to just get round the sharp corner at the end still upright.

The first feed station was in Cullingworth at 42km. Up to there, indeed, up to Hebden Bridge at around the halfway mark, the route profile looked pleasant: rolling, with not too many spikes. Perhaps they were just dwarfed by the later hills, or perhaps it was the weather. Either way, I was finding it tough going already.

Two toilet visits in very quick succession bookended a raid on the snacks of new potatoes and haribo. A twist of my gloves to wring out the pint glass of water that they had soaked up and I started off again. The real climbs were about to start.

There is some wonderful TV footage of Sir Bradley Wiggins on the same roads later in the day. Puffing his cheeks out, he exclaimed “Bloody Hell!” and made an up and down gesture with his hands— a clear indication from one of the world’s greatest cyclists that, despite the absence of lung-busting alpine climbs, the Yorkshire landscape was providing a real challenge.

View from the feed station at Cote de Hebden Bridge.
Wuthering Heights. View from the feed station at Cote de Hebden Bridge.

A nice surprise lay in store at the bottom of Cock Hill, renamed the Cote de Hebden Bridge in Franglais for the event, as two of my sisters stood by the roadside to cheer me on. I had a quick word with them and then set off again.

The 4km categorised climb snaked its way through tightly packed terraced houses which clung to the roadside like mussels on rope.

Accompanied by shouts of “Allez!” and bell-ringing, a real festival atmosphere was beginning to build. Once the ascent started to level, we were treated to wide open vistas of moorland. At least, we would have been if the rain and mist hadn’t obscured the view. Another welcome feedstation preceded a fast descent into Oxenhope and Haworth.

A few weeks ago, I had visited Haworth with my family. At that time, I stared in terror at the gradient of Main Street with its picturesque cobbles. I didn’t recall it being so steep!

Main Street, Haworth
Main Street, Haworth – on a sunnier day

I had to get there, first. Perched on its own hill, Haworth was reached from the main road by another fast downwards roll that immediately threw me into a steep uphill section—as I reached it, any momentum I had was thwacked like a cartoon character running full pelt into a frying pan.

Immediately, riders around me began to get out of their seats—either to stand on their pedals and grunt their way up, or to stand on the road and walk. And so it went until we reached Main Street. And the Yorkshire Pavé.

The initial shock of the juddering sensation that the cobbles brought quickly dissipated with a glance up. The street narrowed as it rose, its buildings almost closing in to kiss each other. And then I noticed the people. Crowds and crowds of people—all of them shouting, cheering and cajoling each and every rider as we grimaced and gurned our way to the top.

A rush of emotion burnt itself through body and mind, which resulted in a broad grin spread across my face.

“What are you smiling for?” Queried one well-wisher who was waving a homemade banner in memoriam to tragic British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France.

“You’re supposed to be suffering!”

“I am suffering,” was my reply, “I’m just a mad man!”

Finally, I crested the top of the street and the cobbles ended. A half a dozen or so of us zipped downhill again and around the corner. It was a brief respite. The air became filled with the thick blue smoke of industrial language at the sight of another climb.

And so it continued for the remainder of the route—and the ups seemed much longer than the downs. There was Goose Eye, ramping up to a 25% gradient in parts—enough to prevent a police motorbike from scrambling its way up.

100Km!!
100Km!!

And there was Kildwick—a tiny village which became the site of the first time I had ever reached 100km, a photo opportunity if ever there was one. Unfortunately, the village held a dark secret behind its stone houses. A little bump over the canal, a sharp right bend and just keep looking up.

There was also Black Hill Road, the final monster to overcome. Yet again reaching over 20% in parts, on which the organisers amusingly placed an official SPRINT sign before the final crest.

“Surprise attack!” came a cry from my right.

“You can have it, mate,” I replied.

He rode, as if through treacle, about half a metre in front of me for the duration of the climb.

These were just short blasts which punctuated the long drags like the iconic Cow and Calf in beautiful Ilkley which was crawling with spectators—we were getting closer to the time that the pros would be coming through but the number of people cheering us on was staggering.

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The finish line!

The final bend into Roundhay Park brought warm sunshine and more emotion flooding over me amid a cacophony of noise; hoardings were drummed and whistles blown. By now, I could barely muster the power to spin my legs but the encouragement from the sides pulled me across the line. People of Yorkshire, I salute you – Chapeau!

IMG_20150504_211236139Still grinning inanely—despite 7 hours 33 minutes in the saddle and the toughest ride I could ever have imagined—I received hugs from family members and picked up a rather fetching medal. My ordeal was over.

There then followed the sight of the police outriders milking some unexpected adulation and the professionals flying across the line to even louder shouts of joy.

Rather than be jeered at, revved, or beeped at. Rather than be attacked by waterbombs, heckled from car windows or even mooned, I had entered a bizarre alternative reality where both policemen and cyclists were celebrated and cheered.

A year ago, I was procrastinating about whether or not to buy a road bike as a means to build my fitness. Now, I commute regularly by bicycle and enjoy weekend spins to places I probably would never visit in the car.

And for one day, I lived Le Tour.

 

I rode the Tour de Yorkshire sportive in aid of Sheffield Children’s Hospital who are raising funds to buy a pioneering 3T MRI scanner that will make the hospital a world-leader in the treatment and removal of brain tumours. For more information and to see how the fundraising is going, please click here.

 

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Swings, Roundabouts and Broken Track Pumps.

Swings, Roundabouts and Broken Track Pumps.

This week has seen a slight improvement in my speed on the commute-by-bike. Whether that is from the lighter traffic of half-term, kinder traffic lights or improved fitness, or a combination of them all, I do not know. Unfortunately, just as I have been getting into a routine I had an enforced train ride to work on Thursday morning.

I’m always a little later setting off on a Thursday, so riding in was pushing it, time-wise. However, just as I was about to set off I decided to pump up my tyres in preparation for the potholed rat-run.

I obviously don’t know my own strength as I somehow managed to completely snap the main tube on my track pump.

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Not only that, but my little hand-pump appeared to have water in it at first. Once cleared, it was getting me nowhere and time was ticking by. Another lesson learned regarding budget bicycling, and some more stuff to go and buy!

Despite my disappointment at having to board a train, all was not lost. I managed not only to get a seat and a table on the train, but I also managed to finish an article I had started the night before. At least that should pay for the new pump. Or at least the return train ticket. Swings and roundabouts.