Tour to Skipton and Back

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A year ago I got on Brown Bike, fell off the other side, and broke my hip. Since then BB has been doing sterling service ferrying me to the hospital, doctors, shopping, meetings and the usual mundane activities, plus a few fun rides. But he’s a tourer at heart and we both needed a holiday from ordinary life.

Patrick and the other CycleSeven bloggers said, “Come to Skipton and do a century.”

That seemed like an impossible but worthwhile challenge. Until the last minute I wasn’t sure I would even attempt to ride from southwest Cambridgeshire to North Yorkshire. But I made it to Skipton, did part of the century, and made it home again.

Preparations

Training amounted to 160km a week, which isn’t a lot, and this was on local roads that are virtually flat. I aimed to do a century before going to Yorkshire, but never achieved it.

I downloaded a waterways permit, just in case I found myself beside a canal, but that didn’t happen.

Before the tour, walking created pain in my hip. One fear before the trip was that a breakdown might require me to walk, and then I would be in trouble. As it turned out, the bike was fine but I needed to walk up loads of hills, pushing my heavily loaded bike. If I had known how much walking I would be doing, I wouldn’t have gone.

As I no longer hop on and off easily, I took a bar bag with me. It’s a large (7 litres) Carradice with a fairly rubbish map pocket. It’s tempting to stuff it with camera, wallet, keys, camera, waterproofs, snacks and so on. Sadly, that all adds weight forward of the steering axis. No problem when riding, but when I’m wheeling the bike or just holding it, any slight lean and the front wheel swings round violently.

Anticipating hot weather, I took two water bottles. But then the D-lock doesn’t fit under the top tube, so that went in a pannier. But then it wasn’t handy when I popped into shops, so I strapped it on top of the sleeping bag on the rack. When I couldn’t use the D-lock, a long wire lock had to suffice.

I took a track pump as well as a rather pathetic mini-pump. As I had no punctures I didn’t need either, but it was handy to check the pressures in Skipton.

I meant to take a chain-tool but forgot. The multi-tool that has an Allen key I need to get the wheels off was useful to put the wheel magnet back on. The two tubes, puncture repair outfit and tyre levers weren’t used.

Shortly before departing, I fitted a Blackburn mirror. It works fairly well for checking following traffic. Of course, it’s no substitute for a proper look.

The Route

From south to north, my route was: Eltisley – Papworth – Godmanchester/Huntingdon – B1043 to Sawtry – Elton – Stibbington – A47 to Collyweston – Empingham – Exton – Cottesmore – Wymondham – Waltham on the Wolds – Bingham – Oxton – Mansfield – Bolsover – Eckington – Sheffield – Stocksbridge – Langsett – Holmfirth – Huddersfield – Halifax – (Haworth) – Keighley – Skipton.

Northbound, I became lost in Sheffield. Southbound, I deliberately diverted to Haworth and accidentally to Farnsfield (SE of Mansfield).

BikeRouteToaster reckons the route is 262 km with 2938m of ascent. My cyclecomputer says I did 328.1km northbound, 295.7 southbound. With the 41.2km I did on the day of the century, my total was 665km (413 miles). I spent ten days pedalling, so 66.5km/day, 41.3 miles/day. When I was younger, I reckoned on 50 miles/day. Ah, well, I’m getting old.

The total trip includes about 6000m of ascent. Everest is a mere 8848 metres. But it doesn’t (yet) have a tarmac path I could cycle up.

I wanted to pay homage to Haworth but the brown tourist signs directing me to “Brontë Village” should have warned me off. The steep heavily-thronged cobbled path from the railway station up to the parsonage and the queues to get into the museum should have scared me away. At the top of the hill, a large full car park sat close to the parsonage. No formal cycle parking, natch. I didn’t want to queue to get into the parsonage. I got no sense of the village or area as the Brontës might have known it. On the way out I encountered a front garden brimming with garden gnomes, and this almost made the detour worthwhile.

Haworth wasn’t a total waste of time: a bridge over the railway supplied an excellent view of a rare double switch-and-crossing. You won’t find many of these around because they are complex and tricky to design, construct and maintain, and suffer from … Sorry. I used to design railway track so I was fascinated.

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Perhaps I should have paid homage to Nora Batty’s house in Holmfirth instead.

Further south, near Farnsfield lies a memorial to a Halifax bomber that crashed in July 1944, killing the crew of seven. The site was sensitive and maintained well, despite being far from the beaten track.

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At their best, such as here, war memorials are places of tranquillity and reflection as well as reminders of sacrifices we must never forget. The crew were 20 to 24 years old.

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Sustenance

I don’t count calories at home or on tour. I ate perhaps three times as much as when I’m slobbing about at home.

Alcohol isn’t my cup of tea. A couple of units a week is ample in normal life, and very rarely during the day. But touring is different. Certainly, pubs are convenient stopping places: more numerous than cafés, and guaranteed to have toilets as well as fresh water. I also think my metabolism works differently on tour and seems to need (or at least welcome) a pint or two at lunchtime as well as the evening.

1kg of home-made muesli provided ten helpings of sustenance that was more than a snack but less than a meal. I make mine with dried milk, so I can just add water. Cereal bars, fig rolls and dried fruit helped me along.

I also intended to snack on bananas. I tied them in a string bag to the outside of a pannier, but as I ate through them and the bag became emptier, I should have tightened the bag. As I didn’t, it flapped around then got caught in the rear wheel in a massive and worrying “SQQUUISHHKHHHHHHKKK” noise.

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Mercifully, no permanent damage. It pulled the computer magnet from one spoke but this was still fastened to the other spoke, so easily fixed. Little of the mashed banana found its way to the rims, so I was pleased to find little squeal from the brakes.

Roads

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Roads where I live are fairly logical. Each town has main roads radiating to other towns. Villages are scattered along these main roads, and they have minor roads connecting to neighbouring villages. These roads are (mostly) used only for access to or from the villages, so carry little traffic. That’s where I like to cycle.

Roads in hilly places like Yorkshire have another distinction: the main roads are fairly flat (but still hillier than Cambridgeshire); the minor roads are very hilly. Beyond Sheffield, I mostly chose minor roads northbound, major ones southbound.

Dual carriageways are noisy, hectic places where drivers may not expect cyclists and I need to concentrate so I generally avoid them. Statistically, rural A-roads are relatively unsafe. For this trip I was on quite a few. Where there is a good gap between the unbroken white edge line and the physical edge of the tarmac, at least a metre wide, I ride there and try to avoid the debris. (I think this is technically illegal, but I can’t find a reference.) Otherwise I ride in “secondary”, about a metre from the white line. I want overtaking traffic to see me and deliberately move out so traffic further behind that may not see me (because I am obscured by the overtaker) can see the action and, I hope, will follow suit. The downside of being in this position (instead of in the gutter) is an increased probability of being rear-ended by a dozy driver. I try to keep an eye on what is happening in the mirror.

Even when I was to the left of the white line, most overtakers moved to the far right of their lane, if not further. There were two close overtakes. In both cases one lorry was overtaking another, so the one nearest me had little room to move out.

When there was an official cycle lane with a decent surface, I used it. Motorists then generally gave me far less room than when I was in “their” lane; there was no obvious need for them to pull out, so they didn’t.

The highwaymen in Bingham have tried to assist cyclists turning right out of Long Acre East into Grantham Road, with this humorous suggestion for road positioning:

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I’ve submitted this to the Warrington Facility of the month. [Update: It’s been accepted as Facility of the Month, September 2011.]

Fellow travellers

Loads of roadies in Lycra zoomed up and down the hills. Fewer MTBs, largely on pavements or jumping up and down kerbs. Far fewer ordinary people on town bikes. One large-wheel trike (ridden by bloke in Lycra, hurtling down a hill). One electric bike. No other tourers, or tandems or recumbents.

Cycling isn’t one culture but a number of cultures (or sub-cultures, if you prefer). Cyclists from all these cultures wanted to talk to me. Perhaps tourers straddle the cultures. Or we are so rare that everyone is curious.

Ordinary people in pubs, cafés, shops and streets were also curious, even admiring, which flattered my ego. “Cycling all the way from Cambridgeshire to Yorkshire? Wow. Will you get there tonight?” They were less impressed by my superhuman status when I mentioned that a fellow cyclist was cycling twice as far, from Cornwall. When I realised this deflected their admiration, I stopped mentioning it. Sorry, Mick.

Some folk wanted to bury me in the latest news from the Tour de France, despite my total lack of interest. I explained that I died of envy when I saw these athletes powering up the hills, but the truth is that to me cycling is a wonderful way of getting around. A sport is something quite different, and watching it on telly is something else again.

Wild Camping

Cycling and wild-camping complement each other as low-tech, low-impact modes of travelling and sleeping. Both help me re-connect with the land, nature and weather.

Wild camping means I don’t need to plan my days or even route. Yes, I realise the modern tourist uses electrickery to pinpoint location, direction and speed, and automagically negotiate with computers at possible campsites, B&Bs or high-class brothels, but for my taste that’s too close to real life. (Apart from the brothels, of course.) On holiday I want to forget about computers, interwebery and phones.

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My bivouac is small and light (1kg) and has ample room for me to lie down, but not much more. I don’t hugely enjoy going to bed or getting up in the rain, but during the summer I reckon I’m just getting a shower for free; a facility some folk pay for in a campsite, B&B or hotel.

Ideally I find an unused road in the middle of nowhere, then an unused byway off that (watch out for signs of horses, bikes or dogs), then an unused path off that, then an unused field off that. But this could take an hour from each end of the day, so I don’t bother too much about that ideal. If I’m close to my route but distant from roads, I’m happy. I spent one night somewhere in central Sheffield. (I wouldn’t tell you exactly where even if I knew, which I don’t.)

I don’t damage crops, of course. I don’t sleep in fields that have livestock — they can be nosey blighters.

July nights are too short for my comfort. I need nine hours sleep, which I prefer to be dusk to dawn. On this tour I generally fell asleep at 10pm and woke at 7am. From arrival to sleep, or wake to departure, was 40 minutes.

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The bivvy has a nylon base and Goretex upper, with a collapsible hoop frame to keep the canvas off my face. If the weather is good I leave it open so I’m looking at the stars (but will wake at dawn). If it rains in the night I seem to zip it closed in my sleep. It has a mosquito net that I can close instead, but I rarely get problems from those critters. It is a Phoenix Phoxhole, “Made in England”, around £120 the best part of 20 years ago.

I didn’t use a mattress; long grass sufficed. My down sleeping bag is quite heavy (2.1kg) but keeps me snug. The bivvy provides another layer of insulation, better than a tent, so the combination provides ample warmth for three seasons.

Overnight I kept wallet, keys and dry clothes for the morning with me in the bivvy. The dry clothes made a good pillow. Any wet clothes and the barbag went in a dustbin liner outside. The barbag itself is rain-proof but the map pocket isn’t.

The Altura Arc panniers are rain-proof. Their colour is rather conspicuous, but face-down they were mostly black. The bike is somewhat shiny. I keep meaning to buy a nylon camouflage groundsheet to disguise him as well as keeping rain from his delicate bits.

I didn’t want to be disturbed by drunks or dog-walkers, so I chose sites distant from populations and not visible from roads, footpaths or buildings. I was on some form of waste ground twice, once in a wood, and the other nights were on field margins, often on the two-metre strip that we pay farmers to keep clear for wildlife. I’d say wild-campers are a form of wildlife.

Early one morning, some creature came sniffing around. I rattled the bivvy from inside, and that chased it away.

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Sheffield

I don’t know Sheffield well, haven’t been there for years, and never by bike. I rode in along the Trans Penine Trail (TPT), which is a mixture of converted railway lines and ordinary roads. The railway route surface varied from smooth packed hardcore to loose rubbish to broken bricks that are like cobbles but sharp. My 28mm Marathons coped, but not comfortably. Impressively, someone has managed to convert a flattish railway line into a cycle path that is best ridden on mountain bikes. I noticed that the stretches with good surfaces were popular, but I was the only cyclist on the dodgier surfaces.

I had downloaded and printed maps (from the Sheffield City Council). These were very useful to work out where I was from street names, where I wanted to go and where I was actually going. They were flakier for pointing out “cycling facilities”, showing cycle lanes that were almost invisible in practise, being rubbed out by tyre rubber. Tyres of countless cyclists? Umm, possibly.

Neighbourhood shops had no dedicated cycle-parking facilities, of course. There were handy signs:

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These particular ones point in one direction to a path that cyclists can use, in the other direction to a quiet road that cyclists might want to use. But a path to where, a road to where? Imagine if motorists were provided with signs that told them where roads were, but not where they went to. True, I could follow road signs. But then I’m taken the long way round, on dual carriageways busy with motorists and trams.

Shortcuts for bikes are great. Signposting them is great. But unless they say where they point to, they are useless — we might even say “pointless”.

To be fair, they sometimes get it right (especially as I wanted to get to Hillsborough). So they know what they should do. But, like everywhere, they don’t always do it.

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Northbound, I tried to be a cyclist and became thoroughly lost. Getting out took a whole day. Southbound I pretended I was a car, and followed directions for motorists, got only slightly lost, and took only two hours to cross the city (including a lunch break).

Sheffield is hilly, and regular cross-city commuting would take more than my current fitness. But local housing to local shops is readily achievable, if that’s what the city wants. But the streets, the junctions, the parking and even the signing is aimed at conveniencing motorists and almost always inconveniencing cyclists and pedestrians.

I saw plenty of Lycra-lads in the city (some of whom may have been commuters), and plenty of leisure MTBers (including women and children) on the off-road parts of the TPT (and full car parks at entry points, natch). I saw no utility cyclists in the city. Not a single one.

However, Sheffield Cycle Chic finds some everyday but (arguably) stylish cyclists, so there is some hope.

Car-sickness

In Halifax, a man of perhaps 80 years old looked frail and weak. But he was strong enough to push a woman (his wife, I assume) in a wheelchair up a hill. The pavement had a terrible surface without dropped kerbs and often with cars parked on it. So he pushed his wife in a wheelchair on the road. When he came to a shop with a car parked on the road and a National Lottery billboard and litter bin blocking the pavement, he took the obvious course and pushed his wife further out to overtake the car. Then he turned left into a driveway for what looked like sheltered housing.

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This made me very angry. Not with the man, of course, but with our society that believes the safety of people in wheelchairs is less important than the convenience of car parkers and commercial billboards.

In Keighley, pavement parking was endemic. More cars seemed to be parked on pavements than on roads. Around half of them blocked the way for pushchairs or wheelchairs. Someone popping into a shop will drive onto the pavement, blocking it, buy his stuff then drive away. Why do we allow such anti-social behaviour?

However, Keighley does understand bikes better than some places. The bus station and shopping centre have Sheffield stands, and some junctions have been designed for the convenience of buses and bikes.

Not exactly car-sickness, but I love this ramp outside Stocksbridge library. Fully accessible by any wheelchairs that can climb just one step.

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The Century

I wimped out. The journey north took longer than I’d expected so I didn’t have my planned rest day. I hadn’t accomplished a century on the flatlands of Cambridgeshire so I knew I stood no chance in the Yorkshire hills. The only question was whether to knacker myself in the attempt.

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The question was quickly settled. The others were massively faster than me and quickly disappeared over the horizon. (Brown Bike swears they had electric motors hidden in their bottom brackets.)

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Chris and Mary came back to see if I had become lost. We pedalled together for a while and their encouragement was welcoming. But I was crawling along even though I was working harder than I could sustain, so I formally resigned from the ride. We exchanged goodbyes just south of Airton. I cycled on to Airton where Sandra and Dennis pulled up in the support car and offered assistance.

I followed the route a little further to Malham, which has a tourist centre with packed car park …

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… and no formal bike parking but a handy tap for water bottles. They encourage visitors to walk from there to the Gordale Scar, but most of the diversion is ridable: 2km on road to a campsite, then 0.5km on a gravel footpath to the waterfall.

Wordsworth wrote about Gordale, so I won’t even try.

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I had a relaxing day. After coffee at the Outdoor Shop in Malham, I took the very hilly road from Airton through Winterburn to Hetton (pausing for a pint), then back to Skipton. Shortly after another welcome bath, Mike (Patrick’s cousin) arrived having completed the entire century less than nine hours after we all started. Not long after, Patrick, Mary and Mick arrived.

Congrats to all. I was envious of your abilities, and delighted to meet everyone.

My room in the Skipton Travelodge was beautifully designed with a niche that exactly fitted Brown Bike. However, next time I’ll request a downstairs room. BB gets giddy going up and down stairs.

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Why do hills hurt?

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Short answer: because I’m not fit enough. My thighs and calves get choked up with lactic acid, and they hurt. I have a slight excuse: my hip hurts when I put weight on it, or pedal hard, which comes to much the same thing. A lower bottom gear (currently 23 gear-inches) would help with both these issues.

When I’ve been on the road for a few days, I reckon my comfortable power output is a miserable 100 Watts. On the flat this moves me at a respectable 23.6kph.

(Calculations by Curt Austin’s calculator, assuming I weigh 66 kg and the loaded bike is 30 kg.)

What happens when I ascend a 10% hill? The speed at that power output plummets to 3.5 kph. This is walking speed, and needs a very low cadence (28 rpm). To get up to cycling speed, I have to double my power output. But the engines cannae take it, Captain, and I soon get off and push. And this disperses the lactic acid but hurts the hip. Yeuch.

I like the variety in cycling that hills provide. And I love the views. If I was stronger, I would enjoy them more.

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Mechanicals

No punctures, despite sometimes riding through broken glass that I didn’t spot until it was too late.

The rear mudguard bracket to the seat stay bridge broke, so I secured it with a cable tie. I had recently derusted the front mudguard, but the fittings are now dodgy. I’ll treat the bike to new mudguards.

The SIS (“Science In Sport”) waterbottle shed black flakes from the writing and graphics. It took me a while to figure out why my hands were covered in little black things whenever I tucked into muesli.

The deluges showed that the compression sack for my sleeping bag is no longer waterproof. I wrapped it in a bin liner. I’ll spray the sack with silicone or something.

The Carradice barbag map pocket, which isn’t quite wide enough for sheets of A4 (210mm) but is too wide for the bag, tore around one of the two poppers. I might organise something with velcro instead.

My camera decided not to power-up any more (sob sob).

Elf ‘n’ safety

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I acquired the squits on the trip north. I assumed this was from a dodgy chicken kebab, but I reacquired it on the trip south. I finally figured out the common factor: a rather delicious home-made (but not by me) fruit cake. After I buried the cake, I had no more problems.

The closest I came to a traffic collision was shortly after arriving in Skipton. I was overtaking a long stream of motorists queueing for lights, pulling in for each batch of oncoming traffic. After one batch I pulled out and nearly clouted a cyclist who was overtaking me. In the traditional British way we both apologised, but it was clearly my fault. (True, he might have anticipated my action, but that doesn’t excuse me.) Repeat after me, Alan: “Look, Signal, Manoeuvre.”

One motorist accelerated hard to overtake me closely, then pulled in sharply, just to pass me before a pinch point. Not comfortable, but not critical. I should have taken the lane.

When I was wheeling up a steep hill, the passenger of an overtaking car leant out of his window and shouted, “Why don’t you bike it?”

In Huddersfield, I didn’t realise a road had a pedestrian underpass, and I wheeled the bike across it. A driver who stopped for me gesticulated angrily. I’m unsure why; he was in a queue to join the inner ring road, and I didn’t delay his journey at all. The ring road was opened by the chair of the borough’s Highways and Sewage Committee, a combination that I’ve always thought was appropriate. (That was northbound. Southbound, I rode on the roads and had no problems.)

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(Just up the road was Kirklees College, “Welcome to our Healthy College. This is a Smoke Free Organisation.” It also seemed to be a bike-free organisation. Plenty of “Accessible parking” and “Visitors parking”, but only for car users.)

Aside from those incidents and a couple of close overtakes, the traffic gave me no concerns. Almost all motorists kept well clear of me.

I was on a few “cycle-only” facilities, mostly in Sheffield. I reckon I was generally safer (ie less likely to be injured) on the roads.

On my last day, I was cycling on the road approaching a doddery elderly gentleman on the pavement. Was he going to stay there, or walk off without looking? I wanted to give him a wide berth but we were at a complex road junction. So I slowed down. Then, sure enough, he stepped off the pavement right in front of me. By the time he looked up, I was stationary a couple of metres from him. I reckon my caution restored the karma I had lost from not looking in Skipton.

The Aftermath

My legs muscles took a couple of days to recover. The hip still hurt when I put weight on it, no better or worse than before the tour. This was the first tour since breaking the hip, and it has proved that I can still do it, and I’m not much slower than when I was younger. This is satisfying.

Now, ten days after the tour, the hip gives me less grief than before. Perhaps the tour (especially pushing Brown Bike plus baggage up hills) used various muscles that have now recovered, and are now stronger than before, stabilising the joint. That’s my theory, and I like it so I’m sticking to it.

Being on tour also reminds me of the simple pleasures of home: instant access to a bathroom, cups of coffee and food whenever I want. And I don’t need to search around for the best place to put my bed. Bliss.

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