‘OK, Clapham, Sunday,10am’ Gunshot-short, pinging my inbox.
I’m going out with the RSF again for the first time in a long time. Covid really devasted our membership and our ride schedule, but we’ve got a date now and it’s only 48 hours away.
Sunday morning, I’m up and hyperactive trying not to forget anything important. Like my front wheel - which I honestly did once forget and had to do a run instead of a ride. Worse, not expecting it to be there when I got home, I ran over it on the drive.
Ian’s proposed taking some food but also having a café stop in the afternoon, so I pack a light rucksack, rack the new second-hand bike I just bought on the car and I’m away up the A6. Half an hour later, I park up just down from the Clapham tunnels and pull the bike down off the roof.
It was a hurried fettling. ‘Amazon’ sent only one of the two cyclocross tyres I paid for, so I’m having to go with a 32mm road-tyre on the back. I figured I’d rather lose the back end than the front, so that’s where I put the Schwalbe CX 38mm, on the front. I did manage to get my Brooks B17 on and unstick the front brake, but the chain wasn’t long enough to take a bigger sprocket so I’m having to run 40 X 18, which is a bit too much for my sixty-something legs, but it’ll have to do. Mustn’t forget my new helmet – first time on, £8.50 from Aldi.
Ian smirks up with a casual wrist draped over the hand-tooled leather saddle which graces the carbon seat-dropper fused to the cockpit of his new bike. The brochure, which he has with him, describes it as an ‘Aggressive descender’ and refers to its abilities concerning ‘Schralpable berms’ and ‘Northshore rock-strewn gardens’ I think he had to wait months for delivery and that it cost more than a car. My little aluminium fixie shrinks against the wall and one imagines him finishing a full roast dinner and dessert before we even get back to the pub.
Yorkshire is unimpressed. By ten past ten, it’s clear no other sane person is turning out in this weather (Sue would’ve been here but she’s away down South for the weekend) and so we clip in and joggle up the cobbles leading to the railway tunnels. Two minutes later, I clip out not sure whether it’s because I can’t cope with the rocks, or the too-high gear. It’s one of those nice little mysteries you don’t want to solve. Another minute and Ian clips out, too. Mmmmmm? So, we click-clack up the path together and I’m grateful for the light weight and flattened top-tube. Ian doesn’t say much, but he breathes a lot.
Sharp left at the top of the hill and a few hundred yards of limestone bridlepath to descend Long Lane – Ian’s in heaven as those buttery front forks bring the velodrome experience to Trow Ghyll. He accelerates away like ‘The Enterprise’ in Warp drive as I do my best to stay on my bike and not bounce off into one of the limestone walls containing the track. It feels like riding a pneumatic drill and my new helmet, which is a bit loose, slips down over my eyes and batters the bridge of my nose. It’s genuinely scary, the fixed-gear is utterly relentless and the skinny tyres, stupidly inflated to 90 psi, make my teeth chatter. At one point, the juddering is so fierce that momentarily I can’t really see where I’m going. The cold makes my eyes stream and when I stop there are literally pools in the lenses of my glasses. When I stop, I look back up the rutted lane and conclude it’s probably no bad thing that I couldn’t see much.
Despite the genuine joy of being out on a ride again, I can’t help feeling a bit pathetic. That is, until I notice Ian bending over his rear wheel, which incidentally has twelve times as many sprockets as mine. Somehow, his chain has come off and gone down the side of the innermost, massivest, sprocket and is wedged tight way down there against the spokes. He’s definitely not happy and refers to ‘Factory set-up’ and ‘Adjuster screws’ several times and with increasing irritation. I’ve no idea what adjuster screws are but my chain’s OK.
Soon, we’re companionably trudging on and the rain lets off for a while. We settle into a sustainable rhythm; Ian now riding his lowest gear with me carrying and pushing as terrain allows. Ian told me to ‘Only carry it when you have to’ – it’s good advice and I only carry on the steepest sections. I hope he never has to carry his.
Head down, I follow directly behind and become fascinated with the way his huge, studded tyres deform and envelope the limestone topography before rolling on, tank-like, to engulf and surmount the next obstacle. He says they can do this because tubeless tyres can run at very low pressures. Not 90 psi, then.
We emerge onto a sort of plateau and rather nice grassland which gives the impression being a well-tended lawn punctuated with limestone outcrops atop small hillocks. There are lots of little paths and tracks meandering off between these rocks and we ride together choosing our separate lines and gently climbing slowly towards the highpoint. Ian rides it all, whilst I do a bit of hiking-and-biking which I find a welcome break from the concentration of trying stop the rear wheel spinning on the damp grass or pedal-striking the limestone.
It's fair exertion and we stop briefly, overlooking the natural amphitheatre of the curiously-named ‘Thieves Moss’. It’s a bleak place, but relatively sheltered and I wonder if it’s named after outcasts from the villages, or perhaps sheep-stealers? Another little Mystery. Ian pulls a flask from his bag and offers me a cup - it’s good coffee – real stuff, the smell as good as the taste. I look across to Ingleborough, we lean on our bikes, the birds sing and the sights, sounds and tastes combine to lock in the memory forever. This is why we do it.
Long descent now, for the first time, riding side by side, the smooth singletrack is no impediment to my slim tyres and the flywheel-effect of the fixed gear helps throw the bike up and over the undulations. Ian is checked by the massive knobbles but slowly pulls away as we descend quickly to cross the road near Borrins Farm and climb the track to High Birkwith.From here, it’s a long, gnarly descent down the Pennine Way to Horton that keeps me on the very edge of my ability to pilot a skinny-tyred fixie through the loose stones, gravel and rocky stuff. Greasy, polished limestone has the lowest coefficient of friction known to man and is unforgiving in a collision. At least twice on pedal-striking, I get the stomach-lurching certainty of a spill, but both times, the bike somehow rights itself and plunges on. It’s the RS-Effer’s eternal dilemma – you need the speed to power you over the stones, but if you’re moving quickly and you lose it…
But I don’t and Ian’s waiting for me at the gate as I walk down the last bit. I’m surprised when he says that he, too, had a couple of ‘Moments’. I imagine the superior downhill capability of his bike means that his were at a much greater speed than mine. But then, if you do have a spill, it’s going to be more interesting – another downhill dilemma. Perhaps the inherent difficulty of piloting an unsophisticated bike gives plenty of warning, whereas, insulating-technology might lead one on to and beyond limits, until the air/ground interface has the final say. Morbid. But then, it’s only so satisfying because the consequences of misjudgement can be severe. Taken to its natural conclusion, this line of enquiry might lead you to giving up RS-Effing and starting to watch television.
We’re on the road now all the way to Helwith Bridge. I’ve got him. I know from experience I can spin this gear at around 20mph for short periods and its only 3 miles to the pub. Down on the drops in my cockpit, the silent, liquid spinning of singlespeed without hint of derailleur drag. I smile to myself, thinking oddly that, if I was still a smoker, I’d have time for a quick fag before he turns up.
Something on the periphery of my consciousness slowly defines itself as tyre-buzz and it’s not mine. Something on the periphery of my vision becomes whirring ranks and files of massive knobs defining themselves as Ian’s front tyre. Unbelievably, I’m being passed – he shouts above the tyre roar that he’s doing 21mph – for a moment, I wonder if it’s an Ebike, but then I realise it’s too big and heavy. It’s absolutely surreal; I’m in my racing crouch, spinning like mad and being passed on the road by a downhill MTB. Mercifully, there’s a sufficiently steep hill to moderate his progress and allow me a face-saving margin of a few seconds by the time we reach the Helwith Inn.
From Helwith, there’s a mile or so until we turn off the road onto a bridlepath which starts with a short, steep and very muddy section. He dives down into it, eager to be off the road and out of the wind and slides away quietly in the frictionless mud, plopping off onto the thick grass bordering the track. He’s unhurt, but I heed the warning and walk the fixie down to join him.
Through the gate, and across the wet field into the polar wind. My rear tyre slides and jerks with too much torque to a tractionless tyre. Ian’s rubber grips OK, but the effort required to keep going is almost too much for him. We stick it out and welcome the right-angle left turn onto the concrete farm track and up and over the hill. Relatively rapid descending spits us out at Elaine’s café in Feizor, which has a queue into the car park, so we decide to press on to the cars back at Clapham.
The remaining couple of miles are relaxed and comfortably rideable, apart from hill where we both walk and have a chat. We skirt Austwick as the Winter daylight on High Lane is beginning to fade and there’s a satisfying sense of completion as we glide and bounce respectively back down through the railway tunnels to Clapham and the cars.
It’s been a day of diversity and dilemma, without conclusion. Our bikes are as different as it’s possible to be, but we’ve ridden more or less together and negotiated the same challenging terrain for the last three hours. It seems to me that my primitive bike’s been no drawback and Ian’s sophisticated technology no advantage. The Dales are a great leveller. Or is it just that a bike’s a bike, despite what the industry says?
Remember the 3 peaks cyclocross race in 2009? Two very strong riders, Rob Jebb and Nick Craig, two state of the art bikes, one cyclocross, one MTB. Winning margin: 15 seconds. As somebody famous once said, “It’s not about the bike.”
Both village cafes are closed and so we stop off at Goat’s Gap on the way home for a sausage roll and an Americano. Ian conjures maps of deepest Wales and we talk about an upcoming bikepacking event we’ve signed up for in May. Like excited schoolboys, we finger-trace ancient drove roads and try to bring the contours to life, seeking sheltered camping spots close to water and weighing up the bivi vs. tent dilemma and discuss dehydrated foods.
Route can be found here https://www.strava.com/activities/6641934180
and pictures here https://www.flickr.com/groups/2766023@N21