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Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Ride of Hope 2: The True Story

Forest trails can be excellent - no cars, no people. But watch out for hornets - not only hurty, but positive evidence of genetic hacking carried out by "Them".

Before revealing the truth behind this year's Ride of Hope, I should like to just clarify something. Lindisfarne AKA Holy Island - and I dont mean the late 1970's folk/rock band - mean the geographical location - is crap. If there are ever moves launched by the islanders, or anyone else for that matter, to have that place recognised as a World Heritage Site, I will launch an immediate Facebook campaign with the emphasis on 'against'. For those that dont know what Lindisfarne is, the best description I can provide is that it is a small heap of mud, slightly (but not dramatically enough to be interesting) off the shore of Northumberland, created by the monotonous deposition of tidal silt, and is a place made famous because

Top to bottom: Landscape near the Cheviots, The Bridge of Death near the Infamous 68, The best cycling cafe in the world. Also pictured is a mysterious forest, and the picture of Skarra emerging is a re-enactment of the most exciting thing that happened to us on Lindisfarne.

long ago some monk decided to live there. The best thing I can say about Lindisfarne is that on a daily basis, high tide floods the causeway connecting it to the mainland, making the 'island' inaccessible. It truly is a dull place.

The same cannot be said of the rest of Northumberland, which is by and large pretty spectacular, populated with great people, superb cycling cafes and even better cycling. For a few days we revelled in single track roads that motorists, in their eternal rush to be somewhere, have largely forgotten.

We climbed across the Cheviots, thighs burning as we dragged bikes laden with full panniers up hills that looked impossible, then swooped down the same hills in a fraction of the time they took to climb - an exhilirating, if too brief, reward for the hours of ascent. We argued constantly, befitting an agglomeration of two of the finest brains to have taken this route at this particular time, Liverpool Football club versus Manchester United, will Beyonce quit showbusiness, will it or wont it rain?

As usual, after the first day, the rest of the planet faded and the only thing that mattered was ride- eat- shower-eat- sleep. 'Its a hunter-gatherer existence' I reflected on one gentle section 'doing comes before thinking, and pragmatics way before reflection' then another bloody hill hit and the brilliant pain took over. QED. For a time everything was great. Then we hit the National Cycle Network route 68 after a brilliant, ascent, and descent of the Cheviots.

The UK's national cycle network is a great idea : hundreds of cycle friendly, often car free routes - old railway lines, small country lanes, forgotten paths - which, according to the smiling faces on the website, you can either use as the basis of long distance cycle journeys, pop to your local shops, have stress free daily commute or take your family for a fun day of relatively safe cycling.

The website certainly supports this characterisation of NCN routes - helpful little lanes and by-ways, dingling through the dells and immensely grateful for their rediscovery, gently unfolding in just the right way to allow smiling families in jeans and other leisure wear to enjoying an active, but not too strenuous day out.

The World's best cycling cafe, is near Barrowburn. And that is really the truth. AT the bottom of a very fast ten mile descent, very rarely visited by anyone except cyclists we had a good chat here with other local cyclists, and got some good advice based on their local knowledge. Advice we subsequently completely ignored.

Not so The Infamous 68. It snarls and dips, grinds and rasps, up ascents that Hillary would shirk, and through switchbacks that the latter stages of the Amazon would disown as "too

complicated". Discarded cycles lay on the side of the 'path', mewling pathetically. Snags of lycra clothing hang in the vicious brambles that grew from uncomfortably at mid-chest level to dangerously at eye level and launch attacks your face,, shoulders, arms and back, while thorns, thistles, and worst of all, nettles attempt to make your legs stop working. And these are not the only tricks up its sleeve: at one point it disappears completely into a series of fields cresting a hill, and later three fords wait at the bottom of rutted mountain bike paths that I would argue, only an expert in extreme sports should contemplate. Then there are the gates ..............the eternal fricking gates.

Despite these torments, Skarra and I dont give up, pressing on to our destination of that evening - the little town of Wooler - via the path instead of, as we had been advised the previous day, abandoning the path and using the parallel main highway instead. And it is with an enormous sense of achievement that we finally arrive in Wooler.

"Wow" I enthuse to Skarra "Eighteen miles like that, and with full panniers!! I dont think many other road cyclists get through that you know !"

Skarra nods his head "I know that not many other road cyclists get through that: remember what that local cyclist, Steve, told us last night? He said - and I quote - "You'd have to be stupid to ride that final section to Wooler on a road bike. Really, really stupid. In fact, we've been campaigning to get the route taken off the NCN. They dont call it the Infamous 68 for nothing. No, its just an invitation to ruin your bike and break something. God, the idiots that try it!!!". Then he said...."

"Ok" I interrupt him " I get the picture, we were warned by Steve. But how did we know Steve was not just spinning a yarn - scaring the tourists?"

As a reductionist, Skarra is nothing of not pendantic, and once started on a track, feels the need to investigate it all the way.

"Well, all the other cyclists also said it in the cyclists cafe - the one in Barrowburn that is the best cyclists cafe in the world that we said we'd never forget - and then there's the guide books, the warnings that were posted and those two Dutch cyclists covered in blood that we met who had just tried it from the other direction. Plus...."
"Ok, ok" I concede " fair enough. That second ford was cool though......"

And we're off again, discussing the ride - gears chosen, riding positions preferred, water strategies - all completely boring to anyone listening, but for me, the whole point of riding - total absorption in solving a problem without the burdensome daily drag of normal life, politics, position and awkward human interaction that is often described as 'thinking'.

The technical details of cycling are not something that this blog will investigate, there are other much better blogs that cover cycling for that. But while preparing for this ride, an article on rainment for cycling did come to my attention, which I would like to share. It is an extraordinary article from the normally excellent Independent newspaper's cycling section, and what is particularly interesting is the recommendation within re footwear. I can only be grateful I didnt follow this piece of advice.

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