British cycling doesn’t always have to be about the climbs, however. There are other challenges to be found
“Fans turn quiet country lanes into gladiatorial arenas as they flock in their hundreds to see the pain on riders’ faces, attracted to the trauma as if it’s some sort of Victorian freak show.”
Several of the UK’s most famous hill climbs are to be found in the Peak District where author Chris Sidwells rode and researched a series of routes for his recently published book,
Really Wild Cycling.
“With the dark, brooding crags of the north and the soft green hills of the south, the Peaks has two faces, their features honed by geology,” he says. “The gritstone north and limestone south are overlaid with a network of trails, all ready to be explored. Some parts are busy, but push on past these and you are soon off-grid.”
British cycling doesn’t always have to be about the climbs, however. There are other challenges to be found in the unlikeliest of places. Francis Longworth is a professor of philosophy who spends his spare time poring over OS maps and consulting Google Earth in a bid to discover forgotten, cobbled tracks in the depths of the English countryside.
So far he has unearthed several dozen miles of farm tracks and drover’s lanes that were once an essential part of Britain’s agricultural infrastructure, yet now lay dormant and neglected like broken teeth.
He has incorporated them in several of the sportives he organises, including the Tour of the Black Country and Cheshire Cobbled Classic. They range from the bumpy mosaic of paving stones and cobbles that is Walton Hill near Birmingham to the unforgiving boulders of The Corkscrew that twists up a steep hill in deepest Cheshire.
“When I looked at the sportive calendar, I saw that most of them were all about the length and steepness of the climbs,” he says. “I realised my events could stand out as something a bit different by the variety of road surfaces they use.”
Sea and land
A challenge of a different kind is the ‘Five Ferries’ island-hopping route in Scotland. This takes in a wonderfully scenic ride around the islands (Arran and Islay) and peninsulas off Scotland’s southwest coast with the goal of trying to catch a succession of interisland ferries. It should take a day but miss your connection and you could be stranded on an island in the Firth of Clyde for a lot longer than you’d planned.
That’s the other thing about taking your cycling holiday in Britain – a bit of imagination and forward-planning can make the experience even more memorable.
Pavé-loving Professor Longworth’s favourite philosopher is Nietzsche, who said there are two types of people: “Those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much.”
The first type would include a particular breed of British rider, the ‘tester’. In his skinsuit and teardrop-shaped helmet, this hardy perennial of the British cycling scene likes nothing more than to ride his bike as fast as possible along an unlovely stretch of dual carriageway that has been assigned a codename. The D10/15, for example, is a 10-mile stretch of the A55 near Abergele in North Wales where the current record of 17 mins 49 seconds belongs to Trek-Segafredo rider Ryan Mullen.
That’s another peculiar feature of the British time trial scene – it may well be a miserable, wet Wednesday night on an anonymous stretch of road, but you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with top professionals. WorldTour rider Alex Dowsett regularly turns up to his local club’s midweek TTs.
Those cryptic codenames, by the way, date back to when bunch racing was banned on the roads after pressure from farmers and gentry who didn’t like their livestock or picnics being disturbed by gangs of cyclists “scorching” along in chaotic hordes. That was in the 1890s, and for half a century afterwards racing on Britain’s roads was done in the form of clandestine time trials, with individual riders setting off against the clock at secret locations, with the advice to be as inconspicuous as possible.
“Competitors are particularly requested to be quietly dressed and avoid all appearance of racing through villages,” advised the entry form for one event in 1903.
Join the club
Though the antipathy between cyclists and certain other road users is an ever-present irritant on British roads, the membership of cycling clubs has boomed in recent years. The weekly club run is celebrated as a social gathering on bikes for riders of all ages, genders and abilities.
“The traditional British club run is something to be preserved,” says Chris Sidwells. “So many cyclists learned their skills and group etiquette on these rides. Club runs are pearls of wisdom handed down and friendships formed. And cycling friends stay friends for life.”
And if you’re planning a weekend trip to somewhere new in Britain, arranging to join local cyclists on their Sunday morning club run is as good and entertaining a way as any to make the most of the experience. This country doesn’t just possess a variety of stunning landscapes, challenging climbs and demanding road surfaces, it’s also home to some of the oldest and strangest traditions in our sport, from the joys of cafe rides to the pain of completing Land’s End to John O’Groats. Now is the perfect time to go out and enjoy them.