Tag Archives: Memorable Rides

Counterpoint

One of the pleasantest things in the world when you’re travelling by bicycle is coming upon a nice old village pub late in the day when the light is fading and you’re weary and feeling the weight of the miles in your legs. It’s all the more pleasant still if the weather happens to have been wet and windy all day and there’s a crackling fire inside the pub and the smell of cooking. You shake the rain off your riding cape, settle into a chair and feel as though you’d just stepped into the pages of a cosy old travelogue.

Such a thing happened to me once, just like that, three years ago, on a raw blustery November afternoon when I was cycling along Hadrian’s Wall and it turned a very long cold wet day in the saddle into one of the most enjoyable cycling experiences of my life. I was reprising it in my mind this morning, warming myself before the old glow of memory, as I put in my thirty miles with the hard autumnal rain coming down all around me.

I’d left St Bees early that morning, in cold slanting rain, and pedalled some seventy miles along the Cumbrian coast, buffeted by an autumn gale every inch of the way – a hard slog in the saddle, but not as unpleasant as it might sound for it was kind of pretty, too, in that melancholic way England is so good at this time of year. All the same by the time I’d reached the moody desolation of the Solway Firth, where mist was cloaking the tidal flats, I was cold and wet and hungry. The light was flat and dead grey and I was more than ready to find a place to put up for the night and tie on the nosebag.

And there it was, dead ahead, the Hope & Anchor, an old sailor’s pub in a maritime hamlet called Port Carlisle, its wooden sign hanging over the road like a beacon. I hove-to in front of the place, went inside to see about a room and a quarter of an hour later was comfortably ensconced over a pint and a pie, my tourer safely stabled around back, my feet stretched towards the fire. Nothing ever sounded better than the wind and rain outside rattling the windowpanes. I felt warm and satisfied and not a little smug, able at last to cast the soggy day and weary miles into romantic perspective, and feeling glad I’d come.

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A Spin on The Pegoretti

As though to make a liar out of me after yesterday’s jeremiad about our endlessly rainy drought, today dawned beautifully clear and cool and still – the perfect spring morning to break with routine and go for a brisk ride up in the weald. On the wing of that thought I decided this would also be just the day to take the Pegoretti out for its first run of the year. And so I pumped up its tyres which (alas, like me) had gone flabby over the winter, and set out for interesting places.

What a revelation it was to hop aboard that bicycle again after these few months away. I’d forgotten over the course of the winter how really lively and responsive the Pegoretti is, how beautifully it handles and how it invites you to put in that extra bit of effort on the pedals – in the happy knowledge that every watt you turn out will be amply rewarded many times over with the sheer giddy thrill of going fast on a bicycle. I spun along the seafront at a noticeably quicker pace than usual and then when I got down to the working end of the beach, I carved a delightfully quick, precise left hand turn and began the long, steep climb out of town on Old London Road.

And I did it at a becoming clip, too, revelling, as I spun up the grade, in the almost aerial sense of liberation I feel whenever I take this bike out for a spin. I’m not sure quite what characteristic Dario Pegoretti puts into the Luigino that makes it fly up hills the way it does – the Luigino is by no means his lightest bike; it’s a retro-classic Italian road bike, his tribute to the great Italian frame-builders of the 50s and 60s and as such built for beauty as much as speed and handling. Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps this fusion of art and function touches is what makes it work for me; I feel romantically fast and light and keen for the road whenever I climb aboard this beautiful Italian lugged-steel road bike and its flawless build quality transfers all of that jaunty open-road spirit into buoyant hill-climbing power and pace.

Whatever it is, or was, I enjoyed that serpentine climb out of town and once out into the countryside I set about looking for more hills to soar up and more curves to lean into at speed. There are plenty of those in this part of Sussex, and this was just the morning to go looking for them. The air was cool and fresh and bracing and the light had that perfect champagne clarity that brings out the details in the landscape and enriches the colours. The miles, the countryside and the hills simply flew – as did time itself. Before I knew it three and a half hours had sped by and it was time to turn for home.

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My Bicycle and I

We could fish for brook trout any old time we liked in the cheerful little stream that burbled through the woods behind our house, and for a long while, when we were little, that old familiar brook with its fingerling trout was plenty good enough for us. There came a summer though when we decided we wanted to cast our lines into deeper, darker, more interesting waters. And so, after clearing the idea with the grown-ups, we hopped aboard our bikes and pedalled away to the Bearcamp, a fast-flowing, big-hearted, tannin-brown river half a morning’s ride away, in Whittier.

That was the first time we’d ever actually been anywhere on our bikes, as opposed to just messing around on them and we revelled in the freedom and novelty of it all. As part of that we made a point of stopping off at the general store down in the village to purchase extra fishhooks and bobbers and quarter-pound bags of M&Ms – stuff we called ‘supplies’ in the manner of proper explorers – not because we needed to buy these things but because we could.

Likewise we bought bottles of root beer from the antiquated (even then) Coca-Cola machine on the store’s veranda and drank them there, beside the wooden crates where the empties went, romancing the distances we’d come and the idea that all this so far just the overture. Still ahead of us, some miles away yet, lay the Bearcamp, a river whose waters up until then we’d only ever glimpsed out of the car window, wistfully and in passing, on family shopping trips down to Wolfeboro or Meredith.

Tamworth, New Hampshire in a 1908 postcard; it didn't look a whole lot different in 1971

By the time we drew up to the riveted iron bridge in Whittier later on that morning and heard the exhilarating rush of the strange new river tumbling over the rocks below, we felt like discoverers. We dropped our bikes amongst the ferns and blackberry brambles that cloaked the roadside, gathered our poles and bait cans and ‘supplies’, and scrambled down the embankment to begin the day’s fishing.

We had a glorious time. We caught rainbow trout, brown trout, pickerel, hornpout, kibbies and bass and, over the course of the day, we even caught a bit of sun on our faces and forearms, something that didn’t usually happen when we fished the quiet shady brook back home. By the time we pedalled up our driveway late that afternoon, lightly sunburnt and pleasantly weary, and having probably ridden close to thirty miles that day, we were already talking up our next expedition.

It wasn’t long in coming. It was like an awakening, that first ride over to the Bearcamp. We rode our bikes everywhere that summer – from Silver Lake to Madison Boulder to an old covered bridge we discovered along a backroad in North Sandwich, where we could climb up into the rafters and dangle our lines into the brook below. We fished Great Hill Pond, James Pond and Lake Chocorua. Our bicycles didn’t merely expand our world, they transformed it. You didn’t need to be a poet to sense the difference between going down to the village in the backseat of the family car and pedalling down there yourself on your bicycle. One was twenty minutes of dead time, life in suspension and soon forgotten, but the other could season an entire morning with sights and sounds, sensations and discoveries that that you might be daydreaming about weeks later.

And to think: if even these few miles could be so involving, so rich in detail and ripe for discovery, imagine a few hundred such miles, or a few thousand? Out to where there were real tigers and real palm trees, deserts and jungles and ancient rose-red cities older than time? Never did the world seem bigger, grander or more worthy of exploration than it did from the saddle of my bicycle.  More than anything I wanted to trot the globe and have adventures and when I was riding my bike, spinning along the backroads of Carroll County under my own steam, a life of travel and adventure seemed not only possible but probable.

Of all the places that were immediately accessible to us it was the tumbling waters of the Bearcamp that exerted the biggest claim on our imaginations. It was while we were exploring its upper reaches one day, some miles upstream of the steel bridge in Whittier, that we made what was to be our best-loved discovery: a great deep secret pool nestled in an elbow bend in the river, and hidden away behind an old sawmill. Dark and mysterious it positively teemed with fish: bass, perch, kibbies and sunfish whose coppery-bright scales shone like new minted pennies There were beautifully speckled rainbow trout, brook trout, and cagey old brown trout that would drift lazily to the surface in some of the slower, deeper pools, startle you with their bigness then drift back down again, fading into the depths.

There were pickerel in there too. Sleek and sinister with their long cruel jaws and wicked teeth, they prowled the shallows looking for frogs, while out in the deeper parts were hornpout, a kind of catfish whose sharp spines could slice through a hand. Deeper still, feeding way down on the bottom, were the suckers, great heavy ugly carp-like things with thick bodies and suction-cup mouths that made us shudder and think of giant leeches in the Amazon.

Nothing became this place like the moment of arrival, after the gloriously long and involving journeys we made to get there; when you hid your bike amongst the ferns and bracken by the roadside and picked your way down through the woods, full of jaunty anticipation, listening to the cheerful river sounds growing louder as you approached and catching those first teasing glints of sunlight sparkling on the water as you looked down through the trees.

That sound of rushing water came from a set of rapids a hundred yards upstream. All was oily smooth down here, the big dark pool wrinkling in slow majestic clockwise eddies. Dragonflies hummed over the surface and the moist air had that delicious piquancy of damp earth and pine. And it was all ours. In all the times we went there we never once encountered anyone else, no adults, no other kids. It was ours and ours alone, an undisturbed world awaiting that very first cast.

We could colour it, and imagine it, any way we chose. And we did, gloriously and extravagantly; it was the Amazon, the Congo, the upper reaches of the Nile. You’d flick your pole, and watch your lure arc through the air and plop down somewhere out in the middle of the pool. As it sank and faded from view in that ominous murk, you’d feel this kind of giddy, mediaeval terror on its behalf: Jesus, anything could be down there. And then you’d shiver with excitement and be glad all over again that you came.

That was all a long time ago; a lot of water under the bridge. Even the memories of those days seem more like fondly recalled dreams than recollections of real life. How strange it is, and comforting too, to look back in middle age, after a career in journalism that has taken me all over the world, to find that once again my bicycle is transforming my world – or restoring it, I should say; reversing the deadening effects of adulthood and a surfeit of frequent flier miles. All I have to do is  climb aboard my bicycle and the world suddenly becomes big again, grand, appealing, full of promise, the way it used to be way back when.  Miles regain their old true measure and filled once more with the intrigue and romance that made me restless and eager and wanting to travel in the first place.

Funny to think of it but when I look back now and think of all the different modes of transportation that have seduced me over the years, I can see that only the bicycle has ever remained true, kept  its promises. The thrill of gaining my driver’s license barely outlasted my teens and a few college road trips, while the prospect of going to an airport, ticket in hand – once the very summit of glamour – has become like the halo before a migraine. Who wants to be herded like a sheep and treated like a criminal? Even the romance of taking the night train or sailing away on a long sea journey has turned out to be like the aroma of fresh ground coffee – somehow the stuff always smells better than it tastes.

But forty years down the track, I can still set off for a bike ride with the same jaunty expectancy that I used to feel when I was a kid and the world was wide and bright as a shiny new penny.

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