I’m on Winnats Pass in Derbyshire. I’m lying on the wet grass verge looking at my bike lying half on the road, half on the grass with me. I gaze down the hill, then up the hill, and then forlornly back at the bike. A moment ago I was riding up the hill. The gradient and wind gradually conspired to push me over.
There are days when riding a bike is sublime. Totally brilliant. Absorbed in your surroundings you become oblivious to the effort required to keep moving. The rhythm of pedalling is a simple pattern rather than exercise. You’ll happily ride all day, looking for unnecessary diversions, extra lanes and extra miles. Other days every pedal stroke seems a grind, lethargy seeping through every part of you. The physical and mental effort to push yourself forwards is an annoyance. On a good day the whirr of chain on cogs and the hum of tyres is faint background noise, somewhat comforting. On a bad day every click and creak is something about to break. Your chain is probably going to snap or rip your rear derailleur off.
You don’t allow your thoughts to escape, to drift and flow. A single thought – I’m bloody hating this – twists around itself. The more you try to think yourself out of the situation the more you sink into it. Rather than riding into a joyful mood every turn of the wheels darkens your mood. An austere landscape is a thing of beauty when your mood is light, discrete details revealing themselves to you. In a foul mood it’s simply desolate. Bleakness abounds.
When things are going well you ride through a landscape rather than riding across it. You feel within a place, part of the landscape as opposed to simply passing over its surface, separated from it. The road surface is smoother, the hills smaller and less steep. You are totally in the present, the immediacy of the moment and location are all that matter. You lose yourself in all the things hitting your senses. Nature around you reveals itself through sight, sounds and smells. Other times you really, really don’t want to be here and certainly not now. You desire to be elsewhere in another time. Preferably with a cup of tea or a pint.
I climb back on and point the front wheel up the hill.
Strava link http://www.strava.com/activities/91410843
Miles ridden: 64
Feet climbed: 5700
Average speed: 12 mph
Counties covered: Derbyshire, Staffordshire
Number of times I wished I was somewhere else: Far, far too many.
Camera used: Canon 500D
Shutting the front door whilst the nearly full moon still hangs over the city to the east I head west. The sun is yet to break cover. Where the sky meets the sea is pink and orange, a hint of what is imminent. I’ve got just under three hours before I need to be at my desk.
Spinning along the cycle path over the cliffs to warm up my legs the sky lightens. I drop to the undercliff path to avoid an ascent over a cliff but I’m soon back up top when the path runs out. Over a headland, around the one-way system, over the swing bridge. Passing the tide mills the sun’s rays blind me and warm me in equal measure. The sea is close to my right hand side and another headland ahead but no way over. Not on this bike anyway. I turn inland, into the houses.
I rejoin the main coast road and as I roll over the brow of the hill the Cuckmere Meander is liquid gold flowing out to sea. Descending to the bridge I realise it’s still water, no early morning alchemy. Over the bridge I turn up the valley. The flood plain is in the shadow of the downs on my right, the hillsides opposite bounce sunbeams back into my eyes. The reeds are leaning towards me in the wind. My back wheel skids and skips a little on the rough surface when I get out of the saddle as the roads weaves and undulates.
At Chapel Hill rays of golden light glance off gentle curves, the depths of the coombes cast dark blue-purple. Over the top of the hill and it’s that view again. In the shadow of Windover Hill I let me eye wander around the downland and weald for a moment. The whole of Sussex is merely a green strip between shadow and morning light. Down at the Long Man a middle-aged gent appears from the hedgerow clutching 3 rabbits. We exchange cheery hellos, but whether a farmer or a poacher I have no idea.
Down on the flat the wind makes it feel uphill. The lanes don’t meander and curve here, they zig and zag around right angled corners. I’m on the drops and my head is down, trying to push through the wind. My legs are burning, but it’s not the cold now, it’s exertion. As Mount Cabon and the Glyndebourne wind turbine gradually get closer I know I’m nearing my destination.
I sit at my desk and turn my computer on, a dull ache echoes through my legs under the desk. I look at the blue sky and hills outside the window.
Look left you’ll see probably my favourite view in Sussex. I never tire of the view west. It’s up against some stiff competition – Steyning Bowl, the Weald when you look out from the false summit on Ditchling Beacon, the view north from just below the summit of Firle Bostal, the Seven Sisters from Seaford Head, the Cuckmere Meander from pretty much anywhere, amongst others – and all from up hills. It’s the main reason for riding up them. That and to justify cake at your preferred cafe stop.
However Chapel Hill isn’t a big hill, and this isn’t the widest vista you’ll find in Sussex, but the scale is perfect, wide enough to see for miles and miles, but small enough to know your way around it. Aesthetically I can’t, or more honestly, won’t fault it. The way the pattern of lines flow down the fields to the River Cuckmere, drawing your eye into the view. Whatever the colour and texture of these fields, it seeps into the fields across the river and into the distance. The fact the South Downs always look best in profile, all undulating soft ripples along the escarpment; sometimes shrouded in mist, other times cloud shadows scuttling up and over, and occasionally the sky is empty but for the sun casting shadows along the ridge. You can see Bostal Hill, Bopeep chalk pit, the distinctive curve of Firle Beacon, the wind turbine at Glyndebourne, and Mount Cabon. Beyond that is home. On a clear day you can see across the weald, past Arlington Reservoir, all the way to the North Downs to the north west.
A swig of water and clipping back into my pedals, I’ll roll down the road to Wilmington to say hello to the Long Man.
The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature. 1836
Two years ago today I phoned up a bike shop to enquire about a Trek 1.1 they had in the sale. A week later I handed over 450 quid and started cycling again. In the time since then it has been ridden more days than it hasn’t. It has travelled over 12,000 miles and climbed more that 600,000 feet. That’s half way around the world and half way to the International Space Station. It’s been down the shops and over mountains. It’s been ridden to work and around islands. It’s been ridden hard and soft pedalled, and sometimes simply rolls along. It’s had tarmac, gravel, rocks, mud, chalk, grass, ice, and snow beneath it’s wheels. It’s been leant against lamp posts, bus shelters, hedges, cafes, pubs, gates, fences and trees. It has cast strong shadows and sprayed water up my back. A few bits and bobs have been worn out and replaced. On occasions it has worn me out. The paintwork has gained some scratches, chips and stickers. In the summer it has different wheels. In the winter it has mudguards. It’s made friends that it sometimes rides with, but mostly meanders around on its own taking in the view. The journey is always more important than the destination. It has more journeys to make.