Tag Archives: cycling

Postcards from the mountains and the islands

The wind, the road, the wind. This has been all there is for the best part of an hour, slowly winding up the Bealach na Ba from Applecross in the blustery, occasionally rainy morning. As my bicycle and I ascend the wind gets keener, blowing warning shots across my front wheel. The rubber momentarily leaves the road, landing an inch further towards the gutter. Then again. Occasional curves in the road offer some respite, but as I mostly ride south-west, I find myself leaning down over the handlebars, gripping to keep facing forwards, legs faithfully winding on towards the top.


The day before I had ridden in to Applecross via the coast road, a lower-level option offering a circuit that appealed to the completist in me. This meant I only had to climb the Bealach one way, and the ‘easy’ way at that. The coast road turned out to be a sensational ride, endless steep ups and downs, little bays, hamlets and forests, and both a joy and a tough ride until I got to the long straight south towards the village. The wind really kicked in then, and did not let up, and then it terrified me that I’d have to fight this for the next four days in the way you only get terrified when doing something on your own, and by the time I got to the hostel I was staying in that night I was scared of what was to come. The fear passed, thanks to a call home, by the time morning came round and I was on the way up. Climbing is calming.


Back on the Bealach. I can see the road above twisting towards what seems to be the summit. But the wind has its way, and forces me off the road as a car passes. Too close for comfort. Overcompensating the wind, I almost hit the car’s flank leaning into it, and put a foot down. I continue to be blown to the side and having no option, get off and push for a few minutes. The work is harder than pedaling and when I can remount its a relief, not least because another few minutes in the saddle brings the tell-tale car park complete with wind-blown man taking photos. Our shouts are inaudible. He possibly confirms that it is downhill from here.

IMG_5985.JPGThe descent down the astonishing corrie of the east side of the Bealach brings relief but more reminders of the conditions. Ascending riders going the other way seem to be gliding up the steep side of the pass, including one heavily-loaded tandem. As I near the bottom emotions bubble up. Perhaps this climb has built up too much over the months I’d been planning it, perhaps the fear of the day before, resurfacing as adrenalin. I stop in Lochcarron village and eat a frankly amazing chicken roll. The bike gets blown over outside the Post Office. It starts to rain. It was that kind of day.


Off towards Kyle of Lochalsh, and Skye, via first respite and then more smashing from the wind. A wonderful, unforgettable ride.


Sprinting over Sleat. There’s a ferry with my name on it, but I have ridden fast and am now chasing the service preceding it. I woke at 4.30am with the rain smashing into the roof of the Glenbrittle youth hostel, as glum an alarm call as there can be. But I rise anyway, resolving to take the shower and achieve the rest of the day as planned. Over porridge made with water – a dutiful breakfast – I watch as the downpour magically abates, leaving wet roads but a dry cyclist, climbing alone out of Glenbrittle in the early morning. What had seemed like a tough charge out of the glen transpired to be doable, and I was on my way to Sligachan and Broadford before having properly woken up. Coffee and a bacon roll in Broadford helped, but it was the onwards dash to Armadale that made the morning. The last 15 miles were a little more forgiving than much of the riding on Skye, and I got into a faster pace than is usual for me (still slow). Two riders emerge from the side of the road and I whizz past them. As expected, they soon catch and pass me, but then something very unusual happens. Over the next half an hour I reel them in, so that just before Armadale I somewhat sheepishly go by again, and stay away until the ferry terminal. The end of my ride, Armadale harbour shining in the warm sunlight, and a rare feeling of triumph.

Building up a bike*

*This is about building a bike from the frame up, not the fine art of welding a frame into life. Sorry if you’ve come here under false pretences.

I didn’t know I wanted to build my own bike. Then I did.

That bit came later, First came a flash of a red, retro-looking frame being ridden on to Southwark Street. It had written on it in red HARRY HALL.

This caught my eye. My son is called Harry Hall, and fine chap he is. Being only six years old, a frame builder he is not. Further investigations revealed that Harry Hall was a Mancunian bike builder of some respite, a well as being Tom Simpson’s mechanic and by Simpson’s side when he passed away on Mount Ventoux. Hall’s branded Mini van was one of the icons of British cycling in the decades that followed.

IMG_4027 3

Harry Hall acts as a custom bike stand for his namesake

Though Harry Hall died in 2007 his shop still lives on in Manchester. It no longer builds frames.

Having spotted this, I started to look out for a frame and found one eBay. As sometimes happens, idly bidding on something results in you winning it, and here the trouble started.

The fellow I had bought the frame off, though very nice, seemed unwilling or unable to get it to me, and I spent a few fretful weeks going back and forth being unsure if I’d been ripped off. In the end the frame did arrive.

Now I had it, I had to do something with it. As lovely an item as it was, built from Reynolds 653 steel with embossed ‘H Hall’ forks it was a long way off being rideable. So, bit by bit, I started to accumulate the parts to do just that. Then I figured I’d put it together myself, or go as far as I could in the process and learn some more along the way about how bikes work.

This has been an interesting exercise, and by doing it I’ve picked up some new skills as well as making mistakes along the way. I thought Id share some of the things I found useful, and some things that were rabbit holes.

Parts list – things I didn’t have that I needed

Front & rear derailleur/mech

Bottom bracket




Cable – brake cable and gear cable, inner and outer



Tools list – some I had, some I had to buy


Standard multi-tool (Condor)

Allan key set

BB tool

Cassette tool

Chain whip


Cable pliers

Cable cutters

Chain tool

A rag

Baby wipes

Electrical tape

Pedal wrench

Other interesting things

Bike stand

Dropout limiter screws

Torque wrench

Rough sequence of events

The thing that slowed me down and gave me pause for thought was not getting the parts and fitting them. Generally, with a few exception this was pretty straightforward and I did it over a couple of months, funded by selling some old Arsenal shirts on eBay. It was working out which tool to buy and then picking them up that was the slower exercise. I’d imagine like a lot of cyclists like me I’ve got a box full of tools and other bits so never invested in a toolkit, so I ended up augmenting what I had. While it was a little annoying to buy a cassette tool and only use it for one part of proceedings, I do now have it for the future.

Most of the parts I needed were picked up cheaply on eBay – a second hand SRAM Apex groupset which was complete except for the shifters was the key purchase, and inexpensive at £35. I needed to add the shifters, which I ended up having to buy new from Taiwan (more on fitting those later) and a new bottom bracket as the one that came with the groupset I got wasn’t compatible.

Bottom bracket

Bottom brackets – the central part of the axle that the pedals screw into – come threaded in a variety of ways, and I found by asking the guy I got the frame off which one he had – an English threaded Trumativ SRAM/GPX one – which one to get. It felt like quite an obscure bit of kit as I’d never seen one before, and was an oddly exciting purchase. Anyway it also was the first thing I fitted, once I’d got a bottom bracket tool. I fitted things without a torque wrench – one is on my christmas list – and it all rides fine. I’m not saying one isn’t a good investment, just that I didn’t have one. Once the BB was on the front cassette and cranks were easy to attach.


As the bike is a little old – but not Eroica old – I thought it could do with a more classic-looking headset than the one it came with, including the quill stem adapter that can be seen in the picture above. Having looked online, then at the tools needed to do that job and still having no idea how to do it I took the bike to the Vintage Bike Cave in Highgate and asked them to do this part of it. Takashi there was pretty helpful with the other stages, and once I’d done everything else I took it back there and asked him to check over what I’d done.


With a classic headset came the need for a stem. As I said above, I removed the stem adapter that came with the frame and  opted for a quill stem, the more retro-looking ones, and picked up one in Condor Bikes on Grays Inn Road. They were very helpful in choosing one based on the setup on my other bike, which is a Condor Fratello. It was nice to talk to people in the shop who were enthusiastic about what you were doing. This was one of a few times I felt liked I’d tapped into a different seam of bike nerdery, a far nicer one than the lycra/road bike crowd. My job is not a creative one, but this was a creative project, and that was unusual for me so it was good to get encouragement.

Bars and wheels

The stem and the vintage Saeko roadbars I picked up (£10, eBay again) were easy to fit, aided by plenty of grease. Grease and a cloth and/or baby wipes for my hands after were never far away.  By this point I’d picked up a pair of Bontrager wheels from a mate. Cheap wheels are a false economy and I got them from him for half price.

Fitting the cassette

The cassette was straightforward to fit once I had the cassette tool. I was nervous about getting the spacers right but it all slipped on fine and ran fine when I was setting the gears up. Putting the individual sprockets on was a little bit of a fingers crossed process, as with quite a bit of this I let me enthusiasm run away with me rather than being completely methodical. I figured if I made a mistake, which I expected to, I could go back and fix it and learn along the way. A couple of times (mainly with front shifter cabling) I had to go back a step, but mostly it was fine.

Cabling and shifters


One shifter attached

With wheels, bars and cranks on Harry Hall was starting to look a lot like a bike. It was at this stage what I would say the more challenging part was started. The shifters and rear derailleur but went on easily with a hex wrench. The shifters came ready cabled with 1.1mm gear cable. If at all possible I’d suggest getting this right first time, as I didn’t and re-threading the cable through the shifters was a dog of a job. I did it three times in the end for various reasons and each time it took the best part of an hour and a lot of swearing and gentle patience. From reading online it seems SRAM shifters make pretty hard to fit the cable through the routing. I found it hard. That said, it wasn’t impossible, just fiddly and frustrating.

All of that meant that fitting the cabling felt a little stressful. In no particular order, I discovered that there are different cables for gears and brakes, and different cable housing for gears and brakes. Cables also come with various end buts (ferrules) that again are different based on what you’re fitting. Then there are the ones that go on the cable ends once you’ve cut them to stop the cable fraying. This is where your pliers come in. I asked for a few extra ones of each end bit when buying cable.

Also on cabling: if I was doing it again I’d resist cutting off slack cable too soon. On a couple of occasions I didn’t have the shifters in the right (neutral/fully clicked out) position and when I fixed that lost some length. Ditto for adjusting the tension. replacement cables weren’t expensive, but it all adds up and as soon as one came out you had to fit it again and the wailing and gnashing of that exercise came back, like Satan’s heir returning to earth.


You also need a little more than you think, as the cable has to have enough give in it to not become tensed when the bars fully turn, and because they’ll be strapped up under the bar tape. However, as myriad bike mechanic videos online note, you don’t want too much either. I used my other bike as a rough reference point. I still got it wrong a couple of times. Not a big deal, but worth resisting final cuts until late in the process.

Adjusting the gears

Getting the chain and rear derailleur running together was fiddly, as I was expecting it to be. The main issue was splitting the chain – I found a couple of video online that showed how to remove a magic link using a section of cable that worked well as I was struggling to get it off, but it then snapped on quite straightforwardly and feeding it through the derailleur was easy with a picture of what it should look like. This was a nice moment as for chain was turning the wheel and for me that means you have at least a basically working bike.

Again following online tutorial videos it was pretty easy to get the rear shifter working pretty well, and get the tension right. This required some trial and error with the limiter screws and the cable tension. I didn’t know precisely what the limiter screws did on the RD before this, so it was useful to play around and find out.

Note comments above about not trimming off too much loose cable too soon.


Electric tape to secure the outer cable housing before applying bar tape


(Not getting the) front shifter (right)

The front derailleur was another matter altogether. Firstly, feeding the cable into the SRAM shifter was beyond fiddly and produced an avalanche of curses. It’s been noted the shifters like 1.1mm cable more than 1.2mm. I fitted 1.2mm in the end so it can work. Once it was through – there wasn’t really a knack, more gentle and constant application of the greased cable to encourage it upwards through the hole – then it was easy to fit to the derailleur. Trial and error (again) on the limiter screws on the front got plenty of movement, but no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the derailleur to shift far enough over to move to the top ring. Online searches suggested I was not alone, but this was one task that defeated me and I returned to the Vintage Bike Cave. Takashi there couldn’t quite get it right, but suggested I was not attempting to start from the right position. Next time perhaps I’ll get it right.

Lacking a bike stand, I improvised with a couple of chairs in my kitchen at first, and then by purpose-chopping some branches off a study, short tree in my garden.

The first ride I did was before the bar tape went on, to check I wasn’t massively wrong in anything I’d done. I have put bar tape on in the past but this time I let Takashi do it as it was in the workshop anyway, but it’s pretty simple. A part of me liked the clean look without it, but as I had big shifters on the bars anyway I figured tape was the way to go.

With the front derailleur sorted – and I figured getting someone else to look the whole thing over before I put it into service – the bike was ready to ride. As you might expect it’s very lovely to ride something you’ve found the parts for and pretty much built yourself, and it rides very nicely.

Apologies if this jumbled collection of notes is incomplete. I wanted to put something down before I forget to do so. And should you have any further questions I will do my best to answer them.


First nervous outing to Highgate Men’s Pond

Baby wipes

The very best thing for keeping your hands and the bike nice and clean. Keep some handy.

London by bike. Why?

Amsterdam is a beautiful, perfect cycling city. I escaped to it last week for a couple of days of work, savouring the sensation of emerging from Centraal station into the busy bike-filled streets. Complimenting everyone I met on the wonderful atmosphere for cycling, I mentioned the stark contrast between it and London. Cycling in London is, as a wise person once wrote, a contact sport. The friendly, clever international bunch of people that I was with shuddered visibly at the prospect of it. London, they concluded, was the worst place they could think of to cycle.

For a few days on returning from Holland I wallowed in the unpleasant contrast, stuck in a dream of cobbles, canals and those Dutch bike locks that render the bike immobile, but not immovable. Despite Boris Bikes and emerging proper bike lanes rather than lines of blue paint, this city presents a formidable challenge to anyone with the temerity to want to ride around it.Yet London is my city, and I cycle in it most days, and have done since I was able to. Something is missing from this picture.

The other day I was happy to find a copy of Jon Day’s Cyclegeography. It has been a serendipitous find. An account of his time as a bicycle courier, it is is a sort of Waterlog for London cycling. He describes with vivid energy the flow and challenge of the British capital from a bike. The tiny openings just a handlebar wide, lunatic weaving through traffic. The sudden space and vantages of the city’s bridges. It also lifts the lid a little on the life of a courier, which sounds as mental as I’d always imagined it to be. At one point I though that might be my dream job, were I a millionaire and had no need to worry about actually making any money. It is a terribly hard way to earn a living.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the book so much is what he describes is so similar to most of my  lifetime’s bike riding. Yes, I’ve done some wonderful rides in southern Africa, the Outer Hebrides, Belgium and all over England, but most of the time it;s the daily grind into central London. I first started cycling properly to ride to school each day, a hateful ride along the pavement next to the North Circluar Road. One day aged 15 my wheel drifted into the guard fence and I found myself on the floor covered in cuts and very confused. With traffic rushing past there was little to do but get back on a wobble to school where I showed off scabs all day. When I started at Lonely Planet I rode over Muswell Hill and Highgate to Kentish Town, those rides bringing my first dust-ups with Highgate West Hill, still the great Alp of the imagination of the north London rider along with it’s haunted neighbour, Swain’s Lane. Invariably I ride in rush hour, with everyone else, with vans and trucks for company, trying to ignore how vulnerable I am in comparison to them.

It was these formative experiences that helped me to retain my sanity during endless rides to and from Gunnersbury earlier this year. Finchley – Golders Green – Cricklewood – Willesden – Harlesden – Acton. Through the rush hour. A candidate for the worst ride in the world if ever there was one, six times a week for three months. Hugging the gutter and dodging the potholes for 14 miles of traffic-choked suburban drear. I stopped doing the Gunnersbury run soon enough to retain some residual curiosity about the areas I passed through, not least the former Greyhound land of Queen’s Park, enough that Iain Sinclair’s London Overground gripped me as he trudged from one station on the ‘ginger line’ to another, passing from Willesden to Cricklewood with the same grey-faced horror/wonder that I had every day.

But I’m no courier. Jon Day’s tales of alleycat races across the city and a strange community of single-speed outsiders were glamorous and exciting, but never my world. Nor is the weekend club rider’s. Cycling in London is a solo pursuit. There’s no room for a partner or a conversation. Every other cyclist is out for the same patch of space that I am, so head down nudgey-nudgey beats  the camaraderie of rural rides. It’s also one that introduces you pretty quickly to the reality of the city. I’ve owned (by a quick tally) nine bikes in my life. Three are under lock and key right now. The other six were all stolen in London. All locked up at the time. There are thieves and bad people, and they’ll have your stuff. Switch your wits on.

With traffic, lights, potholes and omnipresent danger, weekly miles are hard-won. My friend who lives in Wiltshire once expressed envy at the ease at which a commuter knocks out such a distance while making no impact on home life. He then hopped on this bike and rode off to the Cotswolds, or Salisbury Plain, or some other idyllic country spot. But I don’t want what he has either. I am hooked on the hard-to-explain delights of riding round home.

Tackling the Tour de Yorkshire sportive bike ride

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.

Slightly manic grinnning by tired man

Slightly manic grinnning by tired man

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)

Notes for cyclists going to the Outer Hebrides


The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles of Scotland lend themselves well to a linear cycling trip. Ferries link the islands and the mainland and in between boats there is much to challenge both the sporting and touring rider. I fall somewhere between the two in that I tour on my own but wish I had a sporty bike and would therefore be able to ride faster. There are other things I could do to ride faster such as lose weight or train more but I don’t do either of them, for shame.

Here are some suggestions for the Hebrides-inclined two-wheely type.

1. Ferries are your friend


The islands are connected either by causeway or by a fine string of ferries. These Caledonian Macbrayne-operated bad boys can take you anywhere your own pedal-power can’t. Bikes are carried free and there’s no need for reservations. Room is always found for bikes. I don’t know what would happen if they had a bazillion bikes turn up all at once or something but I assume they’d work something out.

2. Assume the weather will be bad

The week before I arrived, and even as I was in the ferry from Oban to Barra the sun was shining and it was almost too hot. It didn’t last, and I had three pretty rough days weather-wise. No matter, apart from ever-so-slightly diluting the obvious beauty of the beaches of particularly Berneray and Harris a little rain is to be expected. But I would pack for it: leggings and overshoes should be standard issue. I didn’t have either and survived, but I have been envious of those who have had them.

3. Work the wind

Strong winds are a fact of life, and not just after a double-helping of Stornoway black pudding, the fantastic local speciality. I was told by nautically-minded father-in-law that prevailing winds were south-westerly (he then kindly informed me that this meant from the south-west rather than blowing in that direction which was also useful), and this held true for the first day of riding. On subsequent days the wind swung round to come from the north-west, then due west. It was strong every day, and every day I had some benefit from it.

4. Dilemmas

You will face some conundrums in planning, and in reality once out on the road. These are the ones I faced, and the decisions that I made.

Dilemma (i) – tarry on Barra

It takes a long time to get over to Barra from Oban – five hours – and it’s a lovely little island. If the weather’s good there’s sea-kayaking and superb beaches on Vatersay. My schedule didn’t allow for this but I wish it had.

Dilemma (ii) – one day through the Uists

The wind got behind me once I got over Eriskay and onto South Uist, and didn’t let up until I had to decide which way to go round North Uist. This made my decision for me but like the above call I heard great things from other people about so much, especially the northwest corner of North Uist and some of the beaches on South Uist. You might meet lots of naked bird watchers. Added bonus.

Dilemma (iii) – Harris east or west


The ‘Golden Road’ around the east coast apparently appeals to sporting cyclists, while the west is for beach-seeking tarts. I went west. Those who went east raved about it. I was pretty happy with my choice too. Less happy about not having much time to explore Harris on foot. Another time.

Dilemma (iv) – tackling Lewis

To see the main sights of Lewis, approach it from Harris, and base yourself at Stornoway requires following a route in a figure of 6. This includes a jaunt north to Ness, the furthest point north-west on the British Isles. Given the point above about the wind at some point on the 34-mile out and back to Ness you’re going to be riding into the wind. For this reason I didn’t, and after looping round from Callanish to Carloway and the west coast headed inland for Stornoway. I met a cyclist heading the other direction who made me feel bad for not going to ‘the Butt’, but I put the thought out of my mind. I met him later and he’d ridden the wind one way and caught the bus back! Cheat! Wish I’d thought of that.

4. Pack for proper remoteness

I found places to eat dotted around, but not necessarily when and where I wanted to stop. There’s a super tearoom on Berneray (The Lobster Pot) which serves meals including evening dinner, and Callanish Visitors Centre has a proper Elektra coffee machine. I don’t often do recommendations but 9 Callanish is a smashing B&B and the breakfast I was served here was a match for me, and I’ve been eating for England on this trip.

5. And if all else fails…

Bus transport around all the islands is excellent. Even very small communities are connected by regular services. I met one group of very jolly chaps who were going from Barra to Stornoway in a day, then heading back to Ullapool that night. I assume they made it with ease, and this would be an excellent express way to see around here.

Brompton World Championships

Brompton bikes are – sorry Boris – the commuter’s friend. In fifteen seconds – ten if you’re quick – you can be off down your chosen road, quick as a whippet. When correctly liveried in jet black they’re the heir apparent to London’s black cabs. Best of all, they’re astonishing fun to ride and almost

All that said, Sleek racing machines they are not. Try riding one downhill. London, having largely a flat centre, rarely exposes the high-speed flaw of a Brompton. Without the big gears of a road bike, a descent renders the rider into a fine approximation of road runner, all whirring legs and benign expression.

The annual World Brompton Championships is slightly different to the full-scale component. Firstly, the race is a free-for-all. Anyone can enter provided they have the requisite folding bike. The race takes place over two laps of a winding, undulating course through the grounds of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, adjacent to the town of Woodstock. And anyone entering must be dressed in, what else, a jacket and tie.

Having bored many of my friends into submission about the wonders of Brompton entering felt like a natural step. Plus the Evenlode, an interesting and previously unexplored tributary of the Thames, flows close by. It may have been early October but the prospect of a dip in a river and a dash on the Brompton was too good to resist.

So it was that I found myself standing in pouring rain next to four Belgian dressed in dicky-bows with plastic ducks dangling from their helmets. Muddy pools of water were forming around the brown and cream brogues I had on to compliment the 1940s pinstripe suit I was wearing. At the sound of the horn the 99 other riders in my pen and I hopped over the rope and ran over, Le Mans style, to where our Brompton’s sat in geometric order. I had to push and shove to get to mine, and promptly forgot how to assemble the bike. I swore a bit and fiddled and eventually got going, onto the road and into a howling gale.

The next thirty minutes were some of the most enjoyable cycling I can remember having. OK, so I overtook plenty of people, especially on the second lap, and that’s always fun. But the buzz is slightly lessened by whizzing past someone on a purple Brompton, dressed as a purple princess complete with purple wand. The real joy was the sense of English silliness of riding a small-wheeled wonder in the rain, on a twisting course through the estate of a country pile. In a suit. In the pouring rain.

And then it’s all over too quickly. My time of 30 minutes won’t rip up any trees, but it felt very swift on a bike with wheels only slightly larger than a seven-inch single. I wonder if they’ll let me ride the hundred-mile sportive in my brogues next year?

The back door to the Lakes

Distant Wasdale

The best way to reach the lakes? The snaking, traffic-trodden M6? Crammed up against a beer-bellied chap with a large bag on a west coast mainline train to Oxenholme or Penrith, then begging a lift? How about none of the above?

Lost in the world of modern railways is the Cumbria Coast Line, a two-coach throwback to another era, complete with request stops, signal-box attendants who double as gate-keepers for level crossings and an abundance of wonderful scenery. You’re probably not surprised by the looming, brooding fells – though Cumbrians are a no-nonsense bunch and you won’t see poets scribbling lines in awe of the hills on board – but the delicate wetlands, estuaries and tidal flats of the coast are less celebrated. Yet this is a journey to savour.

In fact, the Cumbria Coast line may save you time too. The south-western fells around Wasdale are notoriously time-consuming to get to from the motorway. If Langdale and Borrowdale are an hour from the big roads, Wasdale can be close to double that. Ravenglass, Drigg and Seascale are all ten miles or so from the western tip of Wasdale, and can be reached from London, with kind connections, in four and a half hours.

The lakes unfold slowly and deliberately. Just north of Lancaster station, where you’ll leave the main line unless bound to do so at Preston by a service running fewer options, you’ll get your first view if the mountains glowering at Morecambe Bay. Though this is the best known of the tidal flats n the Lancashire and Cumbria coasts it is by no means the only one. Carnforth, famous as the setting for Brief Encounter, is next, with rusting boilers from steam engines sitting alongside mighty diesels at Steamtown, an open-air museum dedicated to locos from the past. At Barrow-in-Furness, where the Royal Navy’s submarines are built you change from the zippy sprinters services to the Cumbria  Coast line proper.

There’s more for rail-buffs of all ages at Ravenglass, close to my one journeys end. Here L’al Ratty, a narrow-gauge railway, climbs up to eskdale on a very scenic journey. Muncaster Castle next door offers tamer appeal, with gardens alive with colour year round.


Request a stop at Drigg and have the station to yourself

The route crosses some of England’s most isolated spots, hiding amidst the folds of assorted Lakeland river estuaries, the North Sea and the cloud-covered Fells. The sun is intermittently blinding with the kind of fresh, sharp light that rain and breeze puts into sharpest focus.  Who needs to travel this beautiful stretch of the Cumbrian coast on a Thursday afternoon, bound for Ravenglass, Seascale and Carlisle? No-one except me it seems. So I have the train to myself until I get off at Drigg, a request stop. Requesting it seemed to surprise the Guard, whose tone of replying ‘really?’ to my request lends me to think that either no-one ever does or that it’s really not my kind of town. To my right, the bracken is a bright orangey-brown on steep, hummocky hills.


Burnmoor Tarn, reached via the Old Corpse Road from Wasdale

The highlights of this journey are many. On the first leg to Barrow in Furness, the crossings of the Kent and Leven viaducts are astonishing, ever-changing vistas. Water and mountains are everywhere yet the train appears suspended, almost floating above it all. It looks more like the north-west of Scotland than the Lakes. A golf course with links on rocky promontories looms into view, then quickly passes. Wading birds find safe havens in the oxbows and inlets, the seagrass and sands out the window.


Oliver’s Gill: good scrambling

As I get off at Drigg, I wait while the train pulls away bound for distant Sellafield, Whitehaven and Carlisle. There’s much more to explore on the coast, but I’m headed inland via a wonderful road where the mountains reveal themselves through folds of foothills. And then there it is: Wastwater. Not the biggest, not the most spectacular of the lakes but for me, the one that takes the prize as the biggest classic. As I slowly cycle its length to journeys end, the calm of England’s greatest landscape is already working its magic. If I were to stay forever would anyone mind?

Wasdale sunset