The White Rose Classic – a high time in England’s high lands.

29 June 2014

Only a few hours on from this remarkable ride and things are still coming back to me.

Parts of yesterday were played out in excruciating pain, with cramping quads and calves, aching shoulders and the feeling that my head was going to burst.

Parts of it were grinding, steep climbs that made a joke of cycling being a fast way to get anywhere, followed by swift, terrifying, exhilarating descents.

Some parts were fun.

Climbing slowly over Langbar. At least the bike looks good.

Climbing slowly over Langbar. At least the bike looks good.

The White Rose Classic is not, then, a ride to be taken lightly.

I arrived full of beans from what I thought was a pretty good training programme after a string ride in the 85-mile Tour of Flanders in April. I’d also heaved a 31kg tent home on the tube from Central London on Friday and done more heavy lifting on Saturday.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be overly surprised, more than anything, that I hit an upper limit of performance somewhere along this route. 3000m of climbing is 1.5 Mount Ventoux’s, the fearsome Provencal giant that repels ill-thought approaches. Yesterday the cuddly-sounding Yorkshire Dales threatened at several times to spit me out and had me seriously contemplating abandonment.

Yet I didn’t, so hurrah for the human body. Bravo to knackered 37-year-old muscles and in particular to the stubborn streak that keeps legs turning when things feel lost.

What’s most memorable about the ride? A few things. Mainly the climbs, not Alpine but steep, stubborn rakes that don’t seem to like you very much. Fleet Moss is home to Yorkshire’s highest road and provoked considerable argument from quads and calves. That I made it over without trouble lulled me into a false sense of security and I didn’t do what I saw others doing at the Hawes feed station: swilling energy drinks in a quest for electrolyte fuel.

Somewhere outside Hawes a thick fog descended in my head. I pulled off the road for a stretch, trying to rid myself of increasingly painful cramp and trying not to panic. By the next climb – the Coal Road – I was gobsmacked to find myself pulling up with shooting pain, walking for a few metres, then falling off when trying to remount. I got going again, still at the base of the climb only with considerable dull-headed stubbornness, and have no recollection at all of the brief descent before Garsdale Head or that climb itself. The view down into the next valley was jaw-dropping enough to jolt me awake. I definitely got a kick out of the descent towards Ribblehead.

Around here the fog clears and I went from counting each pedal revolution to feeling like I was a certain finisher. Just as well as I was only just over halfway at this point. I can’t really make sense of this section of the ride as it seemed to take place in my head. I was certainly glad to leave it behind. By the time we reached Settle I was bristling for a scrap with the steep hellingen I’d lost to on my last ride round here, and summitted noisily, yelling something that may have sounded like encouragement to those around me also puffing their way to the top.

It was from here a small matter of getting back to Ilkley in a decent time. That I did, but the middle section wiped out the sense of joy I have had after other long rides. I was glad it was over, even if now I’m starting to feel some pride at making it both in the immediate circumstances and given the challenges of training for such a ride right now.

As ever, at the finish fellow riders got stuck into beer and swapped stories, while I rode quietly away. I’m more certain than ever of the beauty of the Dales and that a bike is the best way to see them, and also have a funny feeling that I’m not done with the White Rose Classic.

*Update: revisiting this piece after a week I have a greater sense of achievement than at the time, and possibly less inclination to sign up again. Though I can feel that passing too.*

24th May swim

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Almost twenty-four hours later and the thought remains of sky, cloud, sun and water. Sometimes the pond is gentle, green water and quiet. Last night it shouted “ELEMENTAL!” in a way that I can’t quite imagine ever being able to forget. To think, the drive over was in a storm so thick I struggled to see, and I was expecting water, on water, in water.

As I arrived the last drips fell, and I walked along the jetty in some haste, but the sun soon blew out from behind a dark grey cloud and poured through the trees, defying me, the lone swimmer late on Saturday to look at anything else. As I rounded the final turn it was shining straight at me, setting the water alight with bright yellow beams.

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I duck-dived down, swam along underneath for as long as I dared, then surfaced, blinded and reborn. How people used to worship the sun! Scrambling out, I could not resist more, traversing the open water in unusual directions, routine out of the window. Eventually I got out, cold and chilled further by the evening air. I stayed cold all night but somehow have held on the elation, partly because I am now in Yorkshire and close enough to the Lakes to reach out and touch them, smell the air, dream of the walls, fields and streams. And the thought that in life there are endless streams to find and bathe in and mountains to march up thrills like that stream of golden light, last night.

25 May 2014, en route to the Lake District

Amsterdam, April

Amsterdam last night. Dark, quiet and understated after a bright and colourful day. I can smell the air of earlier adventures in Europe, the sound of rumbling trams and their bells, bikes clattering by canalsides.


We may just forget to die

Reconnecting with Patrick Leigh Fermor while reading the wonderful salvaging of the last section of his journey from Holland to Constantinople on foot, The Broken Road.

His words, recounted here, are good words to live by, to be grateful and thankful, and enjoy sunny days, beautiful places and good friends.

“You know we are very fortunate, we live in Kardamyli. We are fortunate – we have the mountains. We are fortunate – we have good food. We are fortunate – we have clean air to breathe. We are fortunate – we have the beautiful sea to swim in.”

“Yes, Paddy, the mountains, the food, the air and the sea,” said the young man, nodding in agreement.

And then Paddy said to him: “And for all these reasons and more, we may just forget to die.”

Lost and found

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Classic 1960s Batman

Teenage boys are strange creatures. I should know. I used to be one. And once you’ve been one a part of you remains one. So something of me is 14 and only really interested in two things: football, and comics. Batman comics, to be precise.

Hint: no-one did.

Hint: no-one did.

American comics became a bit of a thing in the early 1990s. I think it had something to do with the spate of superhero films that came out then. For me it started by gazing at the exotic, small comic books that were tucked away on the bottom shelves. For 60p you could take your pick of Batman, Superman and Aquaman from the DC stable, and Fantastic Four, Spider Man and The Punisher from Marvel.

One of many golden finds

One of many golden finds

Most kids I knew who got into comics went for Marvel. For some reason I chose Batman, and stuck with him. I quickly went from poking around north London newsagents to nearby specialist shops – Mega City in Camden and Comic Showcase in Covent Garden in particular. And from here, the true mecca of enthusiastic boys (always boys) – weekend comic markets. These jumble sales, attended by mysterious sorts who packed a few boxes of exciting wonders in a van were where I first learnt to haggle, shove other people out of the way in search of a much sought after edition, and grew my collection.

A kind of more literal forerunner of Eraserhead

A kind of more literal forerunner of Eraserhead

For a couple of years that was it for me – I managed to pick up Batman comics going back to the mid-60s and also ventured into independents, especially the saga of a samurai rabbit, Usagi Yojimbo by the incredibly talented Stan Sakai. Slowly records and corduroy trousers became the object of my desire, but my fourteen-year-old-self had a plan. All my comics were lovingly protected in plastic bags with backing boards, waiting for the day when I rescued them from storage. And now I have. And looking through them again at their mad covers, with the smell of dusty halls in King’s Cross and Westminster where I got them coming to mind I can safely say that them was fine, fine days.

Two Jokers

Two Jokers


Feminism meets Batman. You suspect the artist didn't quite grasp the concept

Feminism meets Batman. You suspect the artist didn’t quite grasp the concept

Tomáš Rosický – six seconds

Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur, FA Cup third round, Saturday 4 January 2014

Football weaves an odd magic over those who go to watch it. Every week between August and May there’s a set time of a set day when tension ratchets up, and life is not normal. ‘Entertainment as pain’ Nick Hornby called it. I love it, despite better judgement and competing priorities in life.

At this match one incident in particular encapsulate the unique experience of supporting your team and desperately wanting them to win, and how it feels wanting something to happen that is completely beyond your control. And then it does. And it is great.

If you want, you can watch the video (for instance here) to get an idea of what happens. Tomáš Rosický, Arsenal’s Czech attacking midfielder scores Arsenal’s second goal. Here he is, bustling Danny Rose off the ball and charging goalwards.

In an instant, tens of thousands of people stand as one and roar him on in what has become a sprint. Despite the close attentions of Spurs defenders who are younger and faster Rosický wins the sprint.

Next, the duel. Lloris, the Spurs keeper, narrows the angle. A vast, silent intake of breath. Rosický flicks the ball, twisting his body as he does it. This unorthodox shot rises over the keeper and nestles in the corner of the goal. 

And then: noise. An amazing noise.

English football crowds make a noise unlike the continental ‘GOOOOOOOLLLLL!’ It is more like a roar of relief, disbelief and a primal scream that reaches out into the night sky and to the millions watching on TV.

From my vantage point in the crowd it looks like Tomáš may have left it late, which he had, but that he would not ever miss. Just as well, as I used those six seconds in which he is charging towards goal to temporarily discover faith in every deity that comes to mind, and invoke their kindness. Then the ball goes in and I add my voice to roar, muffled split-seconds after that by the supporters around me, old friends and family, who bundle on top of each other.

The scorer with adrenalin coursing through his veins charges off, arms punching the air in celebration.

Nice one Tom. That was a very fine six seconds to be alive.

This morning’s swim

This morning while drying off after a chilly dip at the Men’s Pond I shared a thought with a fellow swimmer.

Did he, like me, find huge benefit in how vexing matters were left behind in the all-consuming exercise of swimming in cold water?

He agreed, but had another question: ‘where do they all go?’

This felt like a very Saturday morning question to ponder for a while.