It is nine o’clock on a Sunday morning in May and I am riding silently up a rain-soaked Calderdale hill. The slope is steep and I am moving slowly, as it feels like I have been doing since beginning the ride at 6.30am. It’s me, my breath puffing in front of me and the slow turn of pedal cranks.
From out of the mist a wonderfully manic-eyed man with long white hair appears, clanging a bell and shouting ‘Allez! Allez!’. He’s a welcome if surprising sight. How, I mentally wonder as the pedals turn interminably, did I come to be here?
As previous rides should have taught me, cycling in Yorkshire can be brutal as well as deeply beautiful. This 90 mile ride, along much – but not all – of stage 3 of the first edition of the Tour de Yorkshire, seeks out some familiar hills and showcases a few new ones. And unlike last year’s Tour de France, where the sunshine set the whole county en fete, a more traditional British Bank Holiday weather forecast delivered the goods. It will be wet, they said. It was wet. Windy too. Coming hot on the heels of a trip to Belgium to ride the magnificent Liege-Bastogne-Liege sportive the preceding weekend the Tour de Yorkshire was going to test my endurance, and ability to keep going on successive soaking weekends.
Leaving our fanatical friend behind there’s a different challenge once the climb is summited. The hill levels out, then plunges into a steep descent. Brake pads scrape on rims. Carbon bike frames belonging to bolder riders clatter past. A girl in front unclips from her pedal and uses her cleat to slow herself. I pull hard on the levers and hope we’re at the bottom soon. I smile as we round a corner, only to reach the foot of another climb. The wind blows stinging rain into my face. There are 60 miles to go.
So, this ride was hilly, wet and long. But was it any good? Of course it was. It was a magnificent odyssey. The basics were in place: good signage and well-stocked feed stations. The latter was a remarkable detour. Serving staff offering mini yorkshire puds and flapjacks to bemused, dripping riders, but nowhere I could see to sort the basics. The puds were fantastic though. That you were riding on the same day as the pros offered a sense of occasion, and the bonhomie between riders was evident throughout.
It’s hard not to feel slightly sorry for the organisers, and riders, when looking at the highlights of the pro race later in the day. Astonishing backdrops of green valleys and far-off towns disappeared for us in mist and squally rain. At times the rain slapped from the side, like a downpour on Lewis on my visit there two years ago. But the conditions had their own rewards.The mist brought an atmosphere of its own, the eery calm of cycling high up, in cloud, occasionally overtaking another rider, sometimes (more often) being overtaken myself. On finishing in bright sunshine, I smiled to another rider and said ‘they’ll never believe us’.
Several landmarks stand out. First, the mighty haul out of Hebden Bridge, not up a severe gradient but unrelenting, and endless. Then the descent into Haworth, with the hoot of a steam train from the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway for company. As soon as Haworth bottoms out, it rises again, up the cobbled High Street that formed the most memorable of backdrops to last year’s Grand Depart, when the stars aligned perfectly. Even early on a sodden day there are dozens of people giving damp nutters like me a cheer. Human kindness feels wonderful sometimes.
A word for the Aldi gloves I wore throughout. These bad boys cost a fiver in October, and have kept my pinkies warm through a long, cold winter and very damp long rides in Belgium and Yorkshire, and they are still in pretty good nick. Plans to go big on some serious lobster hands for next year remain on hold.
As someone who married into an Ilkley family, climbing the road to the Cow & Calf Rocks was always going to be a highlight. The chance to show off to my children just how slowly a man can ascend this slope was a major reason for doing this ride. I did not disappoint them in not overly impressing them, cruising slowly past but not stopping, for fear of not starting again. There was still a hefty chunk of the ride to go, and though the rain petered out the gradients did not, and on the penultimate slope my thighs began to cramp. I did ride every hill, but only with the aid of the odd primal scream or two.
Taking on what I would class as hard bike rides in West Yorkshire is becoming a habit. I am sure there are more to come, but for now I’m looking forward to getting back to only having to face down Highgate West Hill every day on the way home.
And the finish brought smiles, sunshine and the temptation, of course, to do it all again.
Tour de Yorkshire mental playlist (or the music in my head that got me round)
Wuthering Heights – China Drum
Take me! – The Wedding Present
Kiss – Prince
Reverend’s Revenge – The Housemartins
Jenny Ondioline – Stereolab (the short version)