If ever a chance presents itself, I must have said on dozens of occasions, I’d like to ride to or from Ilkley. This small town is the home of my in-laws and the usual terminal point for journeys on the northbound highways of England. It’s also 230 miles from home which is really quite a long way.
Following through on that vague notion and doing this ride had never really felt like a realistic prospect, which is partly why I’d allowed my brain to wander off and construct entirely unrealistic giant cycles along this theme without any rest breaks – the whole thing in one go, or even a London-Ilkley-London over three days, or some other flight of fancy when far from a bike saddle. It was something to always be talked out of, or in the decade-plus of raising our young children, to have something far better to do than actually do.
Then 2020 happened, and COVID led to lockdown and an immense change in my own circumstances, and that rarest of windows to do something as ridiculous as this opened up. This time when I vocalised the wish we both realised there was no reason not to. So one July day we fled north, keen to wake up somewhere else after months in one place, this time with bike symbolically shoved at the back of the car. It emerged for a brief and triumphant ride from a farm in Northumberland we were staying on to Holy Island, a ride to be written about more elsewhere. And then again, on a chilly morning, from an ancient cottage in a village high in Wharfedale. From there the bike and I rode home.
I’ve done long rides before. Ten days of titanic, rarely wind-assisted efforts in Botswana and Namibia. Long days in the saddle around the Home Counties, proving I don’t know what to I’m not sure who. Various rides around Ilkley, some organised, most not, and most recently the brutally beautiful Fred Whitton Challenge in the Lake District, 115 miles of cramp-filled delight.
I’m not sure looking back at this how it stacked up to those. I never meant it to, this was partly about taking an opportunity, partly a plan I came up with during the depths of lockdown to reconnect with as much of England as I could and partly giving the voice of no reason in my head – a constant, loud and demanding one – a chance to let off some steam. Take the reins old boy, let’s ride for days on end and see who wins. In the end we called it a draw.
The first, 6am stage of the ride was over very familiar territory. The back side of Wharfedale, Otley and a climb over Harewood. Then into the unknown of pretty yorkstone-built Leeds commuter villages, the gloriously daft and enormous maypole at Barwick-in-Elmet and a tunnel under the A1. A giant climb looming unexpectedly out of one West Yorkshire village into another. From here the route threaded south and east, occasionally bumping disconcertingly onto bridleways that I eventually learned to anticipate and intercept, over the M62, along quiet lanes and then through a web of railway lines, the River Don and canals.
My only pitstop that day was Imogen’s uncle’s house in Retford, where I ate an entire plate of Jaffa Cakes and had two cups of tea in fifteen minutes before getting going again. I nosed east along to the toll bridge over the Trent at Newton and had possibly for the only time in my life a genuine thrill at crossing the border from South Yorkshire into Lincolnshire. Possibly not, too. This happened again on entering Nottinghamshire, and each successive county. At one point I recall crossing back in to Lincolnshire, which is interesting given that my main thought as I crossed the county was that its roads were so quiet as to make me question whether it even existed at all.
As with all long day rides, eventually the milestones arrive, just further down the road than you’d like them to. First a metric century, then an imperial one, and still quite a long way from the night’s stop at Little Bytham. My head was starting to loll in the familiar action of one who is running on empty. I made the last few miles by a combination of listening to music and dreaming of not cycling for a while. Then late in the day I arrived, ate the biggest plate of food I felt I could get away with, drank a beer in the pub garden and then went upstairs and fell fast asleep. The Mallard broke the rail speed record close to here. I broke no speed records.
On the morning of day two the first thing I noticed was that I was red and sore and lacking suncream. The forecast was hot and this made me somewhat anxious, so I set out as early as I felt I could in search of supplies, – thanks to the benevolence of the pub landlord who cooked me breakfast while expressing bafflement at what I was doing. Exchanges like that, I am convinced, are rocket fuel for long-distance sportspeople. The less others see the point, the more determined I got.
After a dalliance on the west side of what was now a route largely tracking the old Great North Road I stocked up, and then moved south of another psychological barrier, that of Peterborough – usually the first stop on the East Coast wallopers out of King’s Cross. Perhaps this allowed me to convince myself I was closer to home than I was, as the next section was arguably the toughest mentally of the whole ride. A largely unbroken straight line south to Royston via Huntingdon, with the A1 at my side, mile upon mile of not being as far along as I thought I was. Fatigue was making me feel bored, and while lovely villages like Uffington and Barnack had been thrilling discoveries at first, I was ready to be closer to home and on roads I knew well. Then again, arriving in Royston felt like a big achievement. It is not often you can say that. Royston reflections: it was old and pretty, there was nowhere convenient to buy a coke and the loo was closed and bolted.
The final section of the ride was over roads I cover frequently – picking up the route home from Cambridge over the Old-Old Cambridge Road, and then the roads that pick their way over the slopes of northern Hertfordshire taken when riding to friends’ holiday dacha in Essex. With 200 miles in my legs the hills were heavy going and I was losing the battle against my planned average speed, if only by a few minutes an hour. I resolved not to care much about that nor that I was able to see that Imogen and the kids had driven the entire route in little more than half a day including a lunch stop and had now overtaken me to arrive home. I wasn’t far behind, and puffed along from Potters Bar to Barnet. It felt slightly unreal to be passing London Transport bus stops, and then a tube, and through the fog I started to consider that I had completed the ride, and was cycling down our street where I get filmed arriving. Winnie asked if I missed her soft toys.
And that was that. I shan’t be doing it again, I don’t think. But goodness me, what a ride.