Autumn cycling and Higher Ground

What kind of cycling do you do in autumn? Do the type of ride, the routes you follow, your objectives change with the seasons? Do your target distances drop off, and the motivations which get you out the door vary according to the length of the shadows and the height of the mercury? Here’s a glimpse into some of my favourite cycling weathers.

Real cycling weather.

Real cycling weather. October 2012, north of Helmsley

On the cusp.. colours starting to turn, but the seasons yet to bite

Fancy a bike ride? Your ideal ride? Picture it. Well-surfaced, traffic-free roads, no gradient too steep, but a challenge in places, perhaps. Scenery? Stunning. Clear skies, not much wind to slow you down. Not too warm, but pleasant, certainly.. is the sun out? Of course. Plenty of daylight, so you can cycle for as long as you’ve got in the tanks. I’m guessing it’s summer then? Well, you’d hope so..

Mick, Patrick, Dan and Hilary

Your ideal summer ride? Cycleseven’s 100 mile ride in the Yorkshire Dales

But how many of our rides are really like this? In this country you can get better weather in February – higher temperatures, clearer skies and more daylight – than in August. So this ride could be any time of year, and on those magic days we all do get once in a while, well – everything somehow comes together with nothing to spoil your mood, and somehow our cycling wishes all get fulfilled at once. I had a ride like that yesterday. In November.

Yorkshire Dales Lanes, near Brimham

Yorkshire Dales Lanes, near Brimham

Thing is, not all rides are going to be like this. In fact, the vast majority aren’t – unless the rain gods are scared of you, the traffic trolls fear your tyre tracks and you don’t need happy pills to put a permanent smile on your face. Oh yes, you probably live in a different country too.. our weather is not always in its Sunday best, and the roads we travel don’t always match up to our dream rides’. So, given that we can’t always hope for perfect storms blowing on the opposite side of the Atlantic to where we want to ride, what other conditions do we find satisfying in cycling – unless we are truly fair-weather cyclists, what else floats our boat? Well, for me, it’s maybe not so obvious. I may just have more catholic tastes than some, and find pleasure in stranger places than most (hell, that’s true enough), but non-cyclists and (some) cyclists alike are still surprised by where I go to get my kicks, and how I like to ride. Put simply, I’m the kind of cyclist that likes a challenge.

North York Moors in their best set o'clothes

North York Moors in their best set o’clothes

Now this isn’t to say that I jump out of bed when I see the stair-rods coming down, the wind howling or ice and snow making the going treacherous as well as tortuous – I like my comfort as much as the next man, woman, cat. But I hope I share something with some of you in enjoying the sort of weather, and the type of ride, that makes you feel alive. Because it surprised you, with views or lanes you’d not encountered before; because it allowed you, forced you even, into raising your game to battle a gradient, mileage or weather you’d not have chosen for your less-determined cycling nephew/son/brother; because it asked something of you. Sometimes you can have epic rides in the rain. Sometimes you’ve got it in your legs to pass the hundred mile mark and still be glad you did. Sometimes you can see the road rear up ahead of you, and feel the lights in your power meter come on one by one as you relish the challenge you and the road are setting yourself. Is this flat-road cycling? Not for me, it ain’t. Is it summer riding? Well, sometimes.. But where do I go when I want to tackle a new challenge? Somewhere desolate, barren, hilly. Scenic, isolated, sometimes not pretty but always awe-inspiring, generally in the west of the country or at least its higher reaches, and wherever possible, somewhere I haven’t explored before. And when do I find conditions matching my desire to surprise myself, not brutal, not comforting, but challenging, daunting, forbidding even – but in so many ways, rewarding? Well – autumn.

Wharfedale at its rawest

Wharfedale at its rawest

Not all days in autumn are foul, though maybe we could be forgiven for believing it sometimes. But fog, drizzle, cold weather, low sun, and changeable conditions or light, can really lift a ride from the mundane to the ethereal, if the planets decide they’re all going to line up for you. Certainly if you’re looking for an eye-opening, testing ride rather than the perfect-conditions dreamcruise we’ve all had in summers past, then autumn’s your man.

Hidden light, somehow more vivid

Hidden light, somehow more vivid

Another face of Autumn – meet my friend Benny

So what is it about autumn weather, colours, landscapes that appeals? Well, if you can sum it up in one paragraph, you’ll be a better judge than me. But there is something about nature when left to itself – wet woodlands, muddy tracks, damp greens and browns that don’t have the chance to appear when the weather is warm, dry, summerlike – that suggests an earthier root to what makes the world the way it is than human energy and endeavour; that, despite all our efforts and pride in our works of construction, planning, nature-taming, there are larger forces at work that merely tolerate our presence on their patch. With a will and a big enough budget of time or money, we can change the landscape forever; but leave a garden untended, or a wooded corner neglected, and nature will reclaim what’s hers. Maybe this is connected to my desire to explore and experience parts of this world that are new to me; that if I find a patch of this world that is seemingly untouched by the hand of man, then I feel that sense of discovery more keenly than purely through finding myself somewhere I’ve not been before. Maybe. All I know is that seeing real, unprettified niches of autumnal countryside in weather that is less than Floridan, somehow opens my senses all the more.

Someone Else’s World

For the life of me, when I see a view like this, I want to go and explore, to get my feet muddy, to climb over treestumps and up earth banks, the way a child would do. The same is true when I am cycling – the urge to explore a hidden, narrow lane, or to find a winding, chevronned road on the map and seek it out, is far higher for me than the desire to set a new top speed on the flat or to ride through fields of corn in summer – though these still hold their appeal. (See my previous blog, Uneconomic cycling in Exmoor, on the appeal of seeking out the low road over the major route.) But you’ll see why autumn is the time of year when this urge is the strongest – whereas in spring, the life-giving juices are flowing, and in summer, the sun’s influence holds sway, the power of the earth and the water running through it are strongest in autumn.

A Yorkshire vista in its autumn clothes

‘Course, it’s not just mud and narrow roads that appeal to me. As I’ve suggested, the closer the landscape gets to appearing untouched by man, the more elemental the feel and the rawer the experience for me. But an equal proportion of this must come down to the height and inaccessibility of a place – climbing out of a valley floor into high country, finding the higher ground where fewer of the populace venture, has always been a great draw for me too. Again, there are unclear reasons for this, though the sheer joy of finding a challenging climb has always been an irresistible attraction – most of my holidays, the vast majority in fact, have been informed by finding the most ‘interesting’-looking roads on the map: squiggles, chevrons, large areas of open country without pesky towns getting in the way, and routes devoid of alternatives – suggesting that, for those who have had to cross this landscape, the challenge of building one road was enough to dissuade them from trying a second time.

Real cycling.

Touching on an earlier theme, the lands to the west have often been particular favourites of mine, both before ever visiting them and subsequently. There are few places I’ve ever visited that I was actually disappointed by, nor many that I wouldn’t choose to visit again, though I’d sooner explore somewhere I’d not yet visit than retread old ground. The Celtic fringes of these isles – Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, parts of the Lake District, and the Scottish and Irish West – share the characteristics of beauty, height and rawness, of being less touched by man – and less recently – than lower, more fertile and more comfortable lands further south, east, or downhill. The traces of the activities of earlier civilisations than ours, or of generations previous, are less eroded and erased than in lands where man more frequently alters his landscape; centuries ago, much of this land would have been far more populated than now, before we found easier and more rewarding employment working for one’s fellow man and creating capital than in wringing a living out of the soil around us.

The Yorkshire Dales in their autumn season range

The link? Well, again, the further one can get from the evidence of modern man, the closer I feel to the landscape. In moving west, to more sparsely-settled country; in climbing up to barren lands and more remote heights; in visiting those celtic lands where the old ways still hold more sway than in the cities, and in visiting places that bear more of an imprint of ancient ancestors than to his descendants, I achieve the same: to seeing the land in a rawer state than modern man would permit, and to see it closer to how nature, left to her own devices, would choose for herself. If this is how autumn reclaims a country for himself, then long may he triumph over the works of man.

Burrough Hill fort, Leicestershire

Higher Ground

Great Shunner Fell glowers down at the Buttertubs Pass

There are other ways of escaping the nearness of one’s fellow man, and another is to climb skywards. Many of our counties and regions in these isles have higher ground – by which I mean large areas above 300 metres or so, where the climate, rock type, vegetation, habitation, weather all differ from the lowlands. Of course, every county, every square metre even of this land has some higher ground than the rest, but there is a real difference being, say, on top of Exmoor, looking down on the industrial South Wales coast, or climbing out of Glencoe onto the plateau of Rannoch Moor, where the train line still sits on bundles of bracken and branches to keep it from sinking into the bottomless peat below.

Autumn colours of Langdale

Again, each of these areas has a unique feel; the Lake District is jaw-dropping in beauty and variety, with low-lying lakes and jagged peaks reaching over 900m, whereas in the North Pennines of County Durham, where the passes reach 650m above sea level and are the highest in England, the hills are far more desolate, featureless, monumental even. Their beauty lies in the scale and bluntness of their unforgiving size – distances are huge here and for good reason are the Pennines known as the backbone of England. Their less obvious charms of beauty are countered by an isolation, a bleakness, and a solitude that makes one feel tiny in their presence, and somehow daunted but uplifted by the challenge of scaling their heights, of taking on such barren country and reaching a summit, and surviving. Their barrenness brings them fewer visitors, so those who do venture to explore have more of the world to themselves. I could find no guidebook to the North Pennines when I visited in 2009.

Dropping down from the Moors into the Yorkshire Dales

Tell me that this landscape would look better in any other set of colours.

Other high areas of the country also have unique charms; the isolation and intimacy of the Fforest Fawr area between the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain to the west, where tiny streams and waterfalls tumble from and through the hills; the extensive, majestic and frequently bizarre landscapes of the Peak District, where limestone bastions are coated in vivid green like so many trolls, frozen amongst the landscape by the rising of the sun, but clad in verdance by millennia of rainfall compared to their naked younger counterparts off Iceland’s more youthful coast. The daunting scale of the Grampian mountains, with our only region of large-scale, over four THOUSAND feet habitat; the witness to previous ice ages of the Stiperstones in Shropshire where freeze-thaw-fractured mesas stand shattered proud over the head of long-retreated ice sheets.

Gateway to the North York Moors – Boltby Bank

And so to Yorkshire. There are larger areas of high ground than here; more isolated and ancient-feeling tracts of this group of prehistoric islands. But to write off Yorkshire, with its Dales to the west and the scarred plateau of the North York Moors to the east, is a mistake that even I have made; to have visited such distant parts of the British Isles as Shetland and Kerry before, as I was guilty of, spending a week exploring Malhamdale, Ribblehead, Hardraw Force or Ingleton is only folly. Much of this landscape can be visited within a day’s ride of my front door; far more with a weekend or a train journey included. The trip I made on Sunday was by many standards a short one; 45 miles to Brimham Rocks, a yet-more iconic collection of weathered rock forms on the ridge of a set of hills than even the Stiperstones, returning via Nidderdale and Pateley Bridge.

ForbiddingBeckoning – Brimham Rocks

Up to this point, I have been travelling alone, but compared to previous years I have done far fewer solo trips and tours than is my norm, my Exmoor to Cornwall trip being the largest exception. After last year, with a Lands’ End – John O’Groats trip and a 3000km tour of Iceland, maybe that’s excusable. This ride was one of many I’ve done over the previous few years with a Harrogate-based club called
Stiperstones – as the title suggests, no racing CC but rather a club where the emphasis is on enjoying oneself at comfortable pace, but which is large enough to have rides to suit most tastes, and often sharing my predilection for hills and scenery that Yorkshire is thankfully blessed with.

The Advance Party of Wheel Easy’s Long ride take a constitutional

Now I rarely cycle with groups – in the last nineteen years then Wheel Easy and Cycleseven are the only two exceptions – and the dynamics of a group ride are subtly different. Firstly, unless you happen to be the designated (volunteered) ride leader, then the only real say you get in the chosen route is in which ride you join at the start of the day – though in practice an easygoing democratic commonsense is permitted and sensible suggestions are happily accepted. I do find though that, whereas I always enjoy the route and am very pleasantly surprised by finding routes, roads and places I’ve never visited before, and perhaps never would, I am far less able to plot the route taken later on a map. There’s something about making your own decisions that gives you a sense of ownership about ‘your’ ride, that fixes it in your mind and justifies, rightly or wrongly, all your route choices. Another difference is, naturally enough, the speed set and the frequency of stops – Wheel Easy being a broad church, there’s no desperate hurry to get anywhere and those who like picking up the pace are generally happy to wait at suitable intervals, or to relax to a more comfortable pace for the sake of unity of the group. We’re lucky enough to have a club of enough members – maybe 300, all told – in a town of high enough population to allow for numerous different rides on a given day to suit everyone’s preferred speed, route, distance and terrain. Riding alone, however, you might only make a stop when nature dictated, for resting, taking on food and drink or clothing, stopping to take photos or to absorb a scene – or you might choose to break off and explore somewhere on or off the bike that wasn’t on the original route. Of course, that route may be more or less direct, and on a different mix of roads than you might have chosen – more direct, faster and amongst more traffic, or more scenic, taxing, isolated, meandering, individual.

Looking down on Burnsall, Wharfedale – from Higher Ground

Now I kid you not – there are generally more riders on a ‘good day’ (summer, clear skies, dry, warm, sunny) than on a wet, windy or snowy December or January Sunday morning, but there are many reasons so many riders want to cycle some of the hillier, more remote routes that we’ve uncovered or shared in. Many more rides turn westwards, towards the hills and dales, than head into the softer countryside of the Vale of York to the east – certainly amongst the more taxing ride groups. All riders do so to challenge themselves to an extent, and yet the pace is rarely testing. So what are we seeking? Something that can be achieved on any day of the year, in any weather – escapism, freedom, fulfilment. For many of us that can be found just as readily, if not more so, on smaller roads, in remoter locales, in more trying weather and at higher altitudes. And in all seasons. Maybe it’s not just me that likes to get closer to the earth and its spirits when I ride.

Kindred Autumn spirits

For more about climbing to the roof of the world, may I point you to a book or two that I have found fits my mindset well? – though I don’t seem as concerned by losing weight or chasing times as its author, Simon Warren. The books of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, and its sequel, Another …, have pinpointed some of the very best climbs that Simon knows, either through firsthand experience or through recommendations by fellow cycling climbing devotees. He’s ridden the lot, though I’m glad to say I’d tried many of them even before reading the books, and could recommend several more which don’t appear, but as a guide to the sorts of climbs which appeal to my thinking, I have yet to meet a better authority on the UK’s best climbs. If you can add anything, please get in touch.
(Please note: Simon’s website is still marked as ‘testing’ at the time of going to press. The pocket-sized, perfectly-packaged books are far more complete!)

The Buttertubs Pass reaches for the sky