Saturday, 13 September 2014

September Song: The Hoy Hundred

They handed us maps. Two sheets of double sided A4 paper. I take them out now and again and unfold them. Tracing the route against my mind’s eye. These creased papers are now overlaid with sunshine, their contours conjour up the cliffs over Malham Tarn, chalky against the blue sky, the rolling lanes into Kettlewell, the golds of Fleet Moss glowing in the sun, the umbers and ochres of Park Rash and the light, sinking the heather to an inky purple on Barden Moor.
I’m stunned at how much landscape a day can hold. Turn the maps over again to relive the vertiginous descent to Nab End, the deadening right hander at the end that unfurled into a steep bank. Where the photographer, poised, shouted ‘come on young lady’ as I stood out of my pedals, straining to beat the gradient.
Young lady indeed. I wonder how, at this age, I’ve suddenly taken to hundred mile rides. ‘I’m 42 you know’ I call back. ‘Bloody hell’ he says. I’m not sure how to take that. Maybe I’m only as old as I feel.
I found the photograph of me at that point. Framed by the Dales pocket meadows, gridded with dry stone walls. I’m smiling the smile that is fixed somewhere between suffering and joy.
I think I’d decided on the ride quite lightly — the Dales did not conjour a tough century when I did. We’re not into lakeland fell territory, no jagged peaks or scree slopes, just the sweeping curves of moorland shaped with subtle shadows, blurred, rounded and softened by heather and grasses and topped by the occasional outcrop.
With my piece of BMC carbon loveliness, it would make a good day out, the passage into September, a reminder of road riding after being lured off onto trails and rocks all summer. And besides, I really enjoy putting my road kit on. There’s a calm in the order of having one of everything, peeling on each piece from my BMC armwarmers to my DT Swiss socks, safe in the knowledge that they all do their jobs correctly. The instant I step onto the Granfondo, everything just works.
We lined up at the start in groups for the pep talk and are set off together. But our groups strings out quickly. I have the hundred mile target in mind and I set myself a good pace from Skipton. A few men race ahead but it’s only a couple of miles down the line before I begin to pick them up. That’s me, steady, but unrelenting. I keep pushing and I don’t stop. I chat to a lad on his second best bike. Steel frame, down tube shifters and a self-confessed penchant for racing on the flat. Stunned when I tell him to do it before he gets to my age. I lose him on the hills somewhere beyond Malham.
It takes a while to realise that this ride is not to be underestimated. The tops may seem shallow but the roads that lead to them are steep and sapping, and as they level to threads of tarmac across the moors, they’ve already worked on my legs, persuading them they’re heavy and tired.
But the route is good. No, marvellous and magical. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a ride so gloriously and splendidly solitary. These deceptive sapping climbs lead to breath taking moor land roads, slender sinewy byways that just about take the path of least resististance over the tops to link parallel valleys. At these heights though, the lush valleys and pocket fields are hidden from sight, swept away and forgotten as the expanse of heather and hazy peaks draw the eye heavenwards.
I’ve mountain biked here, on bridleways that cross the roads and have the disconcerting feeling of the almost familiar. The route takes a sharp left at Cracoe, the foot of a hot, but fondly remembered, struggle up Cracoe Fell and over Bardon Moor. In Kettlewell I glimpse the insane climb above Starbotton, a loose stony limestone scar that rears straight up the face of the hill.
The difference is one of scale. Off road, each tussock and boulder of progress is hard won. On these magic little roads, we roll out along the valleys, brace for the climbs and then are bowled out towards the heather, the hills and the tantalizing horizon. We seem to fly towards it, suspended between the moorland and the sky, but before we can touch the distant peaks, the road dives and we plummet back to follow the green lined river routes along the valley floors.
The route takes us the length Wharfdale, out over the top of over Fleet Moss and into Wensleydale. I can feel the distance growing. Hawes is about the turning point, the top edge of the route, and we follow the river until we reach Wensley and turn back over the moors towards home.
And as the miles mount steadily, the amount of climb leaps up and up. It seems that every 30 miles we top another thousand metres. There are feed stations on this route. Cyclists congregate and eat. There’s quite a lot of sitting around but I worry about reaching home (and Clover the poodle) so I set off alone.
Just before the final feed station — as I tag onto a group for the first time in fifty miles I calculate that I have spent the best part of eighty odd miles battling my way into a headwind. In fact the best protection from the headwinds has been the shocking climbs.
Leaving the feed station I am grateful to join three southern mountain bikers -exiled on road bikes — for the last fifteen miles. These cheery chaps with broad shoulders usher me to the foot of Barden Moor. I am stunned at its bulk before me. From an entirely disinterested perspective, it is beautiful. Glowing in the slanting light of a September afternoon. But my heart sinks. There are only a handful of miles to go but it stands between me and my destination.
I have to put my head down and grovel in my lowest gear. Ignore the walking figures of broken riders ahead and pedal. Occasionally I look up. We are making progress. Even the retro Raleigh is doing well, zigzagging across the road ahead of me to stem its incline. I had exactly the same bike twenty odd years ago. Black and shiny with Raleigh emblazoned in gold. I loved it — the tall gearing was perfect for tearing round London but it was stolen in Clerkenwell.
Musing takes me up. The steepest section abates and from the shoulder I make better progress. My companions are waiting on the summit and we freewheel down the hill into Embsay and push on the last couple of miles back to base.
The day is wrapped up. I have hardly stopped. No photos. But my head is full of gold and light. Small green fields. Steep hills. And an infinite hazy moorland rolled out below blue skies.

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