Is it training, or is it an audax, or is it commuting? Or is it just riding a bike? Does it matter what the reason is that you chose to get on your bike and head out for a ride? What stimulates our desire and energy to continually motivate the bicycle to keep moving forward? I love riding my bike and I enjoy the feeling of having ridden a long way, but I sometimes wonder if I’m really made of the ‘randonneur’ stuff. Sometimes cycling a long way is uncomfortable, and who wants to be uncomfortable? In the face of religious and political persecution, people flee for their lives; enduring more than just being ‘uncomfortable’. Many people today are moving around the world not through choice but through desperation; it seems obscene that some people are living hand-to-mouth (and in fear for their lives), while others (like me) are intentionally embracing discomfort for recreation. This is not a juxtaposition I’m able to resolve, but it is something I can pray about.
This day I’m going to visit my ‘Spiritual Director’; a wonderfully wise woman who lives in North Yorkshire and has a knack of really listening to me. She hears what I’m saying and helps me to be orientated on Jesus. She encourages me, and because we’ve built this spiritual interaction over a few years the conversation is easy to restart – we don’t have to relive old failures or seek context to the dialog. I could drive; but my mantra that ‘God’s work shouldn’t require me to damage the planet’ prevents me from doing that. Anyway, I’m trying to live car-free. I could catch the train. Or… what could be more fun on my day off than a whole day cycling? A trip through the North Yorkshire Moors to Teesside it is then: the Humberside/Teesside/Humberside 200!
I left home at 5am with 115km ahead to reach Swainby and I’d assumed a 20kph average pace by adding the flatlands of East Yorkshire to the lumpy lands of North Yorkshire. The sun was already well above the horizon and there was a warmth to the atmosphere. I’d applied a ‘thermo-nuclear-level’ protection with sunscreen lotion: I felt confident I’d survive the high UV radiation that was predicted for the day.
There are always routes which become familiar, and here on the southern slopes of the Yorkshire Wolds I seem to have three regular starting directions – south over the Humber Bridge, north climbing into the Wolds, or west, along the flatlands towards York. Today’s start was one such flatland ride. I do enjoy knowing that there is a huge level of traffic on the main roads which leave the country lanes deserted, and once again I was travelling with hardly a motorist in sight. Sadly, when I did see a car, the driver was also enjoying the empty roads and driving quite fast. Two blackbirds flew from a hedge and with a thump, one was instantly killed on the bonnet of the car. I felt that the quiet harmony of the countryside had been robbed of something special. Some may say “it was only a blackbird”… but I was saddened by the casual and inevitable death. Of course the driver didn’t stop. Why would they. It was only a bird. And who am I to judge anyway: I’d just passed a pig farm and I’m not a vegetarian. Yet.
As I approached Everingham I met some gentlemen in orange jackets hammering ’20mph’ signs into the verge. Just like the bowl of petunias in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I thought to myself, “Oh no, not again.” The worst kind of top-coat was going to be applied to the road surface today – hot sticky tarmac and a scattering of large gravel. I’d hoped to ride back this way and now I knew that the road was going to be horrendous to cycle along.
The freedom that cycling brings isn’t just the physical freedom to make your own ‘cake-powered’ way in the world, there is also the mental freedom to think. If you are not racing or competing then there are no expectations being placed upon you – for the length of the ride you have the physical and mental freedom to simply ‘be’. I know that I’m not alone in finding this a spiritually rewarding experience.
With the sun high in the sky I met the first hill of the day; approaching the Howardian hills and climbing up onto the ridge which runs through Terrington. The road is steep and with the hot weather I was soon coated with sweat, which dries leaving behind a white powdery coating of salt on my skin.
Arriving in Helmsley after four hours cycling I fancied something to eat and drink. These breakfast-free starts can leave me hungry after a few hours. Co-Op offered a ‘rice and apple’ plastic pot/meal thing and with a bottle of water I sat outside and tried to figure out how to eat a pot of rice-pudding without a spoon. I have a rather nerdy titanium spork which I seem to endlessly fail to carry with me – must remember to put it in my Carradice bag next time!
I had two hours to get to Swainby, but the next section of the ride was the intimidating ‘Snilesworth Moor’, 28km from Helmsley to Swainby with 600m of climbing, the sort of ascent that is short and sharp and has to be ridden every metre of the way. It was beautiful though: refreshing to the soul if not the legs.
My appointment was at 11am… and as I crested the final climb of the morning, looking out over Oakdale Beck and Cod Beck to the Vale of York in the distance, I had about 20 minutes to reach Swainby. All downhill from here I thought – wrongly. I climbed again, from Osmotherly, and finally looked out over Teesside; to a view I used to seek out regularly. The Teesside vista of industry, agriculture and people’s homes is a complex one which creates a range of emotion in me: here we are, people. Living. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t clean or environmentally compassionate but there is a community and a friendliness here. There is both harmony and dischord. There is something about life in this Tees-valley which cries out to be prayed for.
After my meeting and a beautiful salad for lunch, I was once again cycling uphill. This time I was climbing Scarth Nick to Osmotherly. The road is so steep that the tarmac has trouble staying put in hot weather. The broken and lumpy surface is also damp from the water running off the moors. Stay in the saddle and it will hurt your knees. Get out of the saddle and the rear wheel skips and slips – this is a technical climb which demands concentration.
I was now returning the way I’d come. Snilesworth is a moorland area that is great to cycle through – but rarely does anyone cycle through it twice on the same day. My legs were telling me it was difficult and I believed them.
Then something mechanical happened with the bike. With a clatter of unfamiliar noise my chain started to jump around. I stopped and looked to see what was going on. At first I was bemused, but soon realised that the freehub on my rear wheel had decided to stop being a ‘free’hub and treat me to the joys of fixed gear riding: as the wheel turned it fed the chain through constantly which meant that I couldn’t coast anymore because the chain would feed through and snag up when it ran out of slack – locking the rear wheel up and putting strain on the chain. This wasn’t a problem as I rode uphill, but as soon as I reached the top of Newgate Bank outside Helmsley I knew I was going to find this a difficult descent. I had to keep pedalling and at the same time use the brakes to stop myself spinning out of the top gear – I was rather anxious as I tried to keep the bike down to a speed I could ride.
Now I know lots of people ride ‘fixed gear’ bikes. I understand that it helps develop that thing known as souplesse; not a lack of soup but a wonderful degree of flexibility in driving the bike forwards. I’m not that good. There I was in Helmsley trying to work out if I could un-fix this, so to speak. I slowly realised that with 80km left to get home, I was going to have to pedal every rotation of the way. Big deal you may think; you’re a cyclist, you have to pedal. I didn’t have a snappy comeback to my inner mockers.
Once over the Howardian hills I had plenty of flat countryside in which to ride – which was good because braking and pedalling was making me nervous – and I came back to the motivation I needed to complete this ride. I’d sat there in Helmsley and faced some choices. I have ETA rescue cover; I could have called for a pre-paid taxi service to come and collect me at no cost. York wasn’t too far away; I could have taken the shorter ride and then a train home. I could have phoned home and asked Carol to rescue me. But instead I was on a 200km DIY Audax and I had a mechanical problem I had to overcome in a self-sufficient manner. Sure, I might be ‘fixed gear’, but I had 30 ‘fixed gears’ to choose from and the road was predominantly flat to get home. I just rode my bike. It was a good feeling to get back home with time spare, to complete this audax in the face of mechanical adversity. I certainly gained a sense of achievement that I’d made it and not given up.
London Edinburgh London is five weeks away. There will be 1433km of riding to do and I’m expecting plenty of opportunities to just give up. I’m nearly finished in my training plans, but physically and emotionally I took a hit two months ago when I sprained my ankle and wrist. It took eight weeks before that began to feel better and I worried that I wouldn’t be physically well enough to ride LEL. Mechanically I thought my bike was ready – then my rear hub internals collapsed. To be on the safe side I took my bike for one last check up with a professional… and lo – the headset needs replacing!
I think I’m as ready as I can be for LEL, but I know that despite my planning something unexpected will happen. The question will be, will I find a way through or will I give up?