Another old ride report, in which I seem to be channelling P.G. Wodehouse. This ride, up to Scarborough, included a crossing of the Humber Bridge, which will also feature on this year’s Edinburgh-London. It’s an elegant structure, and also a popular suicide spot (a fact that becomes readily comprehensible when you ride through Barton-on-Humber)…
I’ve suspected for some time that Audax riding, while hardening the undercarriage to the texture of my old gardening boots at the back of the hall cupboard, softens the brain to the point where it dribbles out of the ears. We’ve all seen it… 0 km: Bright-eyed randonneurs are standing about, bandying Wildean quips about each other’s personal hygiene, taste in bar tape, etc, and exchanging finely honed aperçus about the treatment of time and memory in the work of Proust. 100 km: Hair (where present) is starting in tufts; eyes are beginning to pop; randonneurs have developed exclusive preoccupation with cake and tea; knees begin to feature as topic of conversation. 200 km: Communication may now be limited to feral grunts and bellows, in which the occasional word (“Tea!” “Beanzontoast!” “Kneeeees!”) may be discerned by the trained observer. Degeneration thereafter is swift. From personal experience I know that it’s possible to spend 72 hours at a stretch saying only “Ngggh” and pointing a palsied finger in the general direction of basic foodstuffs.
Fortunately, recovery is also swift, and within 24 hours of the finish, given a suitably slack-jawed and inattentive onlooker, I can generally pass muster as a normal human being. However, I fear that, as with the old-time footballers who headed sodden leather balls, there may be long-term damage.
Long-term damage is my favoured explanation for the otherwise inexplicable fact that when I checked the distance between home (Reading) and the 2002 AGM and reunion (Scarborough) and came up with 381 km, I thought: “Oh, that’s a long Dinner Dart this year.” Rather than, say, “I’ll get a train to Nottingham and ride from there” or “Think I’ll just give it a miss this year.” Ian’s [Ian Hennessey] been doing this stuff for a bit longer, so his response was: “Why not do the extra 19 km and make it a 400?” Because, I pointed out firmly a) it’ll be late November and the weather will be vile; b) it’ll be late November and we’ll be horribly unfit; c) it’ll be late November and do you really want to be out there for another hour?; and d) it’ll be late November (the prosecution rests its case, m’lud).
Standard Hennessey rules applied: As little flat terrain as possible. The direct route from Reading to the Humber Bridge seemed to entail the Chilterns, minor undulations to Market Harborough, family-size lumps to Oakham, flatlands (ptui ptui) to Lincoln, and wolds the rest of the way. That would do.
We decided the ride would take us about 24 hours, and would pass muster as one of Peter Coulson’s Personal Permanents. Right, we wanted to arrive in time to get something to eat on Friday evening at the hotel in Scarborough. So we needed to set off earlyish on Thursday evening. From earlier bouts of temporary insanity I had route sheets covering most of the way to Lincoln; north of there the route wrote itself, with a little help from www.multimap.com.
Ian turned up almost on schedule (if he’d been a train, he’d probably have been “on time” by the elastic rules that seem to apply these days), and proceeded to titillate the neighbours at Marshall Towers by changing into his cycling kit in the garage. We went inside to eat a bucket of pasta drizzled—well, drenched, really—in sauce that had rather more chili in it than I’d realised. Before long, only an hour or so later than intended, we were off, breathing fire that illuminated the road almost as well as our lights and vowing to ride steadily.
The night was damp but mild. Mild for late November, at any rate. We climbed gently on B roads before plummeting off the Chiltern escarpment and riding through a deserted Watlington. When we’d passed along the Thame road in June every bend had been picked out by illuminated cat’s-eyes, but few of them were lit now. Maybe they were solar-powered—I couldn’t recall when I had last seen the sun.
We stopped briefly at the 24-hour garage in Thame, then marvelled again at the length of Long Crendon. We were now borrowing bits of Peter Coulson’s Middle Road, which is rather up and down at this point. I tried to set a steady rhythm, but seemed to be outpacing Ian on the climbs, to my surprise. Attempts to chat met with silence. We passed the turn to Ludgershall, familiar from Chiltern-Cotswold 200s in years gone by. Then three things happened in swift succession: A car came by, the first we’d seen for some time; I realised Ian was no longer on my back wheel; a sound reminiscent of the detonation of a small thermonuclear device (but much swearier) ripped through the night. I looked back. I could see Ian’s lights perhaps 50 metres away. What was the problem? Better go back and see…
Ian was stopped by the roadside, rustling a route sheet in a marked manner as he inserted it into the map case on his bar bag. “What’s the problem?” I asked. “Nothing—you go on. I’m holding you back. I’ll continue at my own pace. I’m fed up with being half-wheeled.” More emphatic rustling. Deploying all the diplomatic skills at my command, I suggested that it probably wasn’t a very good idea to separate on a night ride at this time of year, safety in numbers, you know, sorry if I’d been half-wheeling, I was in no hurry, etc. Eventually, after a little more grovelling on my part and rustling and muttering on Ian’s, we got back under way.
Conversation resumed. Phew! We passed the prison at Grendon Underwood and rolled gently through Buckingham, seeing no sign of life apart from a police patrol car that gave us a close examination before dismissing us, reasonably enough, as harmless eccentrics. In the moonlight, the sheep in the grounds of the country club near Pontesbury were ghostly blurs.
Since we’d be reaching Northampton in the middle of the night, I’d plotted a route that took us through the middle of the town. We negotiated a couple of vast interchanges, and found ourselves on a dual carriageway. A 24-hour garage loomed on the left—it was obviously time for a control.
We strode in, headtorches ablaze, and began the smashed randonneur “Simon Says” game. Well, you don’t actually say anything whether or not you’re called Simon—you just wander about a 24-hour garage helping yourself to whatever food has just taken your companion’s fancy. This saves expending vital energy on nonessential functions such as thought. The only drawback is that whenever another, ahem, delicacy arrests the attention of either party, you end up grabbing that as well. And bright colours are very attractive… Eventually you plonk your banana milk, incandescent with E numbers, tin of anchovies, hot chocolate, chilli-flavoured crisps, fluorescent Mr Kipling cake, and date-expired prawn sarnies (in radioactive vomit dressing) on the counter before the startled cashier, who is clearly wondering whether his employer’s liability insurance is up to dealing with recklessness on this scale. Smirking slightly, you then ask him to stamp your brevet card, and tell him How Far You’re Going.
It was warm and dry in the garage. Outside it was still mild (now, brrr, mild for late November in the middle of the night), and drizzling. We loitered as long as we decently could, then loitered a little more.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to Northampton. It was an eye-opener. My mental picture was of a small market town, but the reality was miles of takeaways, minicabs, and urban sprawl—a slightly miniaturised Birmingham. Eventually we left the bright lights and kebab shops behind. In the dark, Northampton to Market Harborough was featureless but undulating. I was too dozy to talk. We plodded on.
Through Market Harborough, and onto a section of route borrowed from the 1999 Reading 400 km. The counterintuitive left turn in Medbourne, and also the staircase-like road after the village, the plummet into Stockerston, and the Climb with a capital C out of Stockerston came as no surprise to me. This was all “new” to Ian, though I reminded him he’d ridden this road twice before while heading north (and once while heading south).
Likewise, I’d remembered the lack of Descent with a capital D after the Climb with a capital C. You don’t call a town Uppingham if it’s Downingham, after all. The descents came on the big dipper of a road to Oakham, along with a couple more climbs. It was cold and damp, and the thought of Great Gonerby services began to seem weirdly attractive. I began to fear for my sanity.
We had to wheel the bikes through some pipelaying works after Oakham, then pedalled past the second prison we’d encountered on the route. Scenic, eh? Not far to go until breakfast now, I thought. And perhaps warmth and sleep too. But I’d reckoned without Ian… Spotting a bus shelter in a bleak village, he said: “I just need half an hour’s rest.” Oh well.
The bus shelter was spacious but rather too well ventilated for my liking. Ian stretched out on the bench at one end and was out like a light. A snoring light… I stretched out at the other and dozed spasmodically. When I was woken by a more than usually violent bout of shivering, there was a glimmer of light in the sky. I roused Ian. He surfaced briefly, said “Jussafewmoreminutes,” and resumed snoring. Drat! I had a choice between hypothermia and rummaging in my panniers for a second thermal. I rummaged…
Even wearing both thermals and two more layers, I was too cold to sleep. Fortunately, Ian woke before long, and we set off in the drizzly dawn light. This was an oddly featureless part of the country, evidently inhabited by plain-spoken folk. In village after village, the main street was called, er, Village Street or Main Street. Occasionally, in a burst of dangerous creativity, there would be a Church Street or a Bottom Lane (complete with Bottom Shop, in one instance. It wasn’t open, so there was no chance of popping in for a spare). Apart from that, there was little to be seen except flat muddy fields and the odd contorted, wind-blasted tree.
A solid stream of lorries marked the line of the A52 as we approached, but miraculously melted away so we had no problem doing the requisite L at T and imm R. The A1 by Gonerby services was a different and scary story, but we negotiated the dual carriageway and roundabout without mishap.
I managed a personal record at Gonerby: Nearly 14 quid for breakfast (orange juice; veggie Full House; yoghurt with fruit and muesli; coffee; milk). Good job I didn’t need a main meal… But we were inside, in the warm, with half the ride done. The hard half, I hoped.
As we were unlocking the bikes before setting off, someone asked: “Come far, lads?” Oh joy! A licence to boast… We told him, and, ever so casually, mentioned where we were heading. He was duly impressed, and told us he was on his way to Ghent for the six-day race. To spectate, that is…
Before long we were bowling along the flat lane towards Lincoln. We could equally well have been batting along. Slippery customer, Johnny Language… The sun was shining, and the wind was helping us on our way. In the distance the cathedral was visible on the hill.
We threaded our way through morning commuters in Brant Broughton, before turning onto the main drag into Lincoln. I was riding very carefully, since Ian’s ideas of sensible progress in urban traffic don’t always match mine. (This is an understatement. The only thing more foolish than tracking Ian through traffic is trying to match his speed downhill. To follow Ian downhill is to be transported back to the golden age of silent cinema. Remember the classic Buster Keaton films in which Buster stands there imperturbably as the building collapses around him? I once followed Ian down a descent into the Wye valley from the Forest of Dean: Ian negotiates blind bend nanoseconds before large four-wheel drive comes round on the wrong side of the road; oblivious postman flings open van door just after Ian passes; dog bolts across road the instant he’s zipped by; decrepit oldsters totter dodderingly from the hedgerows once he’s passed. He waits imperturbably by the bridge—what kept me? I arrive quaking and in need of industrial-grade tranquilisers.)
Anyhow, we’re riding along, minding our own business and avoiding rush-hour traffic. Suddenly a teenage boy on a mountain bike emerges from a minor road and rides straight into Ian’s side. Now, it’s not exactly unprecedented for somebody to end up in a heap in the road when Ian and I ride together, but generally it’s me. The impact caused Ian to swerve to the right. Somehow he managed to stay vertical. Somehow I managed not to hit him and fall off. Somehow nobody drove into us while we were taking evasive action. We stopped in reasonably good order. Ian delivered a short sharp lecture to the sprawling boy on what would have happened if we’d been cars, namely, abrupt personal introduction to G. Reaper, Esq, Dunlivin, 1 Styx Close, Hades. Exit teen, clutching his ribs and claiming, in the face of evidence to the contrary, to be OK.
Shaken, we rode on. Well, in point of fact, shaken, I rode on. Ian imperturbably sneaked inside and outside lines of cars while I dallied nervously a few metres behind. This wasn’t right. I’d got off scot free when precedent suggested I ought to be in casualty with appendages poking out at odd angles. Fate was doubtless lurking even now behind a lamp post, thoughtfully thwacking a sock full of sand against his palm and whistling a Robbie Williams tune as he waited for another pop at the Marshall occiput.
There was momentary uncertainty before we found the road that climbed out of Lincoln centre onto the wold. Again streetmaps downloaded from www.multimap.com came to the rescue—it’s invaluable for permanent rides. Before long we were up on the ridge, surveying a sun-bathed vista of potato fields and power stations. How many power stations could we see? Four? Five? How many potato fields? Come on, be serious…
Something caught my attention in the huge blue sky: a huge question mark made of cloud. “Have you seen the giant question mark?” I said to Ian. He gestured over the potato fields. In a neat V, seemingly rather closer to each other than I’d contemplate in a bunch travelling at 30 kph, the Red Arrows at 800 kph started making smoke and looped the loop over our heads, their contrail posing a big question…
So began a magical morning. The road clung to the high (well, high-ish) ground, the sun shone, and the Red Arrows provided an extraordinary cabaret—the best entertainment I’d run across on any ride since Sheila Simpson’s Cheshire-Cambria 600, which encountered the cycling leg of a women’s triathlon (I lead a sheltered life; I had no idea what the dress code for a triathlon is…).
But I digress, with a secret smile playing about my lips. After a while, the road deserted the ridge for the lower ground. We paused in a layby in a village for a snack. I extracted a Go Bar from my bar bag. Ah, yes, just what the world needs: Another brand of energy bar that’s like eating old brake blocks once the temperature falls below 15 centigrade. What am I complaining about? I didn’t actually lose any teeth… With lively but detached interest, we watched an oil tanker attempt to reverse into a gateway and almost demolish it.
Onward, and, as it turned out, upward… Before long we were back on top of the ridge, on a long straight road, greeting the occasional oncoming cyclist. Eventually, in Kirton in Lindsey, we turned off. This was a bit more boring… I know, let’s play I Spy. Er, I Spy With My Little Eye Something Beginning With P. Um, potato field. I Spy With My Little Eye Something Beginning With P. Um, potato. Maybe this wasn’t the ideal game…
We had to cross the A15. Ian found some kind of micro-gap in the stream of traffic. I waited for daylight between lorries. Even with one foot planted firmly on the ground, I staggered and almost fell at the impact of the wake of a passing pantechnicon. We trundled through another couple of pleasant villages, then found ourselves skirting Brigg on a bypass that offered the occasional tantalising glimpse of a rather appealing main street. My great-uncle Stan (I told Ian) lived near Brigg and ate ham at every meal. Ian feigned polite interest—about the only reasonable response to a conversational gambit like that, apart from observing than eccentricity clearly runs in the family.
On the flat road from Brigg we were approaching a wooded escarpment that seemed, to the trained eye, to imply a bit of a climb. Ian stopped at the edge of a ploughed field, announced that he was feeling sleepy, and said he was going to lie down for a bit of a kip. Doubtfully, I eyed the squelchy verge. “You’ll get wet. It’s not far to Barton. We’ll find a café there,” I said. “Hrrrmph,” he riposted grumpily, but began delving in his bar bag for a chocolate-coated brake block. I practised sleeping on my feet (if horses can do it, why not me? This is a vital skill for the randonneur…).
The hill wasn’t exactly bad, but came as a bit of a shock to the system. Before long we reached Barton-on-Humber. I’d been here before, on Pete Gifford’s 1997 National 400. I’d passed through on a sunny summer Saturday evening, and had formed a favourable impression: This was certainly a place where a hungry cyclist could find haven and sustenance. No haven or sustenance on our route through the town now. Something was up, though: Lots of roads were closed. Just before the Humber Bridge Ian suggested (quite forcefully) that we turn back and make a proper search for a café. The main street was closed to traffic. Fairground stalls were being set up, before an appreciative audience of gawpers. We picked our way through the crowds, and eventually found a cramped café, filled with the fug generated by a roomful of people all smoking three cigarettes each. Pausing only to fold our lower limbs into the origami-like configuration required by tables and benches apparently acquired as a job lot from the local kindergarten, we ordered omelettes and chips. They arrived swiftly, and were dispatched even more swiftly.
I don’t know about you, but there’s generally a point on a ride at which, in the face of experience and common sense, I leap to unrealistic conclusions about when I’m going to finish. This was that moment. It was the end of November (have I mentioned that?), there was a bit over 70 km to go, we were completely knackered after 300-plus km, it was about two in the afternoon, so obviously we were going to get to Scarborough in daylight…
It proved easy enough to find our way onto the Humber Bridge cycle path. Finding our way off the cycle path on the northern side was a bit more challenging. We couldn’t rejoin the road: Large “No Cycles” signs. Below the bridge a cycle track was signposted for Hull. We didn’t want to go to Hull, thanks all the same. (I’ve been to Hull once. Sometimes once is enough.) As we were scratching our heads by the signpost, Lucy Rutter arrived off the bridge, looking very perky. She’d ridden, lightly laden, from Cambridge. After poring over the map, we decided that if we headed for Hull for a bit we’d hit a promising-looking road that would intersect with our planned route north.
The first bit of the cycle path was a little on the soggy side, but I didn’t mind—the Longstaff was wearing cyclocross tyres. The promising road turned out to be quite a find, cutting off a good chunk of A-road. Retrospectively, I declared it the official route. The A164 proved rather wearing, with a constant stream of traffic zipping past our right ears. But at least we were making good progress, I thought, eyeing the gathering clouds. With some relief, before Beverley we were able to divert for a while onto the old main road, now a cycle route.
Beverley proved to be a slightly smaller-scale version of York, as architecturally appealing and friendly. We halted for a snack at a shop in the centre and had to deal with a barrage of amicable enquiries: Where had we come from? How far?!! The usual stuff, handled with the usual false modesty… On general principles (well, my shoulders were hurting), I had a couple of Nurofen. Tsk, illegal drugs, Ian said.
Off again… Lucy now found herself doing more than her share of the pace-setting, while Ian and I, in zombie mode, lurched along in her slipstream. What there was of it, anyhow—Lucy’s not very big. The bit after Driffield was beginning to prey on the remains of my mind. After driving north with Ian for a committee meeting a few weeks earlier, I could visualise the map only too clearly: Lots of contour lines, and a Gothic inscription saying “Here be Wolds.”
Ian called a brief halt at a garage on the outskirts of Driffield, and flopped on the ground on the forecourt, despite spattering rain. I ate a chocolate brake block and allowed my arms and neck to dangle. Then we made our way through the busy town centre and onto the Scarborough road.
As the climbs began, Lucy danced off into the distance. I’d ridden through this area before, and knew I didn’t like it—the wolds were steep enough to be sapping, without offering much compensation in the way of views. Particularly in the dark. We’d have to make our own entertainment. Ah, inspiration: The Name Game. “Wold Thing (You Make My Knees Ping),” I remarked. Ian sniggered. “I’d Like To Teach the Wold To Sing,” he said. “Sitting On Top of the Wold.” “Born To Be Wold.” We branched out into film. “Wold at Heart.” Ian sneaked up behind me on a climb and said: “The Wold Bunch.” Fact: It’s impossible to climb when you’re helpless with laughter.
It was now fully dark, and heavy showers began to fall. The combination of darkness, rain on my glasses, and the glare of oncoming headlights blinded me on the descent into Langtoft, to the extent that I was descending barely faster than I had climbed. The same didn’t apply to Ian, needless to say. At intervals, I demanded a pause to wipe my glasses, but was steering by guesswork again within a couple of hundred metres. There was more blind descending on the approach to Foxholes. Ian waited patiently in the village. I reciprocated by biding my time until we reached a lung-bursting bit of the climb back onto the wold, then hissed into his ear: “The Wold Is Not Enough.”
Trailing bad puns in our wake, we inched our way across the grain of the countryside until we reached Staxton hill. According to the sign at the top, this is 16 percent, but, having driven down it and up it, I was aware that these were percent, Jim, but not as we know them. It had stopped raining, though the road was still very wet. Ian vanished, at Mach 2.5. I cleaned my glasses, took a deep breath, wished devoutly that I was on the trike, and pedalled off the edge. Aaaaaaaargh!
Despite the wet tarmac and darkness, it was okay. Well, more accurately, okay-ish. At any rate, I stayed rubber side down, which is always a plus…
Traffic was heavy on the main road into Scarborough. We were hailed incoherently by a passing car, which pulled into a layby ahead of us. It turned out to be John Curtin and Vicki Brown. Excellent, yet another opportunity for casual boasting. There’s has to be some compensation for doing a ride this long in winter…
Actually, I remarked as Ian and I were collecting our final control stamps in a garage on the outskirts of Scarborough, this has been rather an enjoyable experience, on the whole. We must do it again sometime, Ian said.
Now what was it I was saying about long-distance cycling softening the brain?