Saturday, 19 July 2014

Bikes, Beer and Brave Legs

A lifelong fan of La Boucle, I booked my place in a West Yorkshire campsite as soon as I heard the tour was coming to that neck of the woods. Not so much woods, of course, as magnificent rolling hills, steep climbs, glorious moorland with heather and bracken, curlews, plovers and a rainbow after every shower. I came to understand the complexity of green when I moved up to the Rochdale area in 1979. Even after living for 18 months in Ireland I never appreciated how muddy it can be, how liver coloured, how red and violet and grey, how bleached by brilliant sunlight after a storm.

This holiday has been a sort of home-coming. I lived for a number of years in Bacup and Milnrow where the Calder Valley is not so very far away. Up over Blackstone Edge onto the moors, dropping down to the Rochdale Canal for a softer ride into Myltholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge. Or north, towards Keighley and Haworth. Ooh, that cobbled hill! This is the countryside of my youthful biking trips. Every hill was a challenge to be met and climbed with gritted teeth. I covered miles and miles with my tent and camping stove. Happy days.

I turned 60 this year, but that wasn't going to stop me. It's not often Le Grand Départ  comes to England.

Yorkshire did the Tour proud. The enthusiasm was extraordinary.Yellow bikes adorned every shop window.
There were cakes and meringues with bicycles and French flags on them. One house was painted white with red polka dots. Yellow bicycles filled with flowers leaned against lampposts. There were yellow bicycles over shop doorways, yellow jerseys strung up on washing lines, yellow babygrows, yellow socks, yellow everything. Even the local Baptist church had a picture of Bradley Wiggins outside it, though it was sadly out of touch by a good few months - 'The end is not nigh! 108 km to go!' Sir Brad hadn't even been selected to ride. All along the mighty climb of Cragg Vale a Guinness Book entry for the longest stretch of continuous bunting rippled in the brisk breeze. It ran along sheep fences, lampposts, telephone wires, gateposts. The hours of effort that must have taken, the hundreds of hands cutting and sewing and tying it on. The crowds everywhere surpassed the organisers' dreams. The sun came out and it stayed out and Hebden being Hebden, there was an arts festival with music, comedy, poetry and films to keep everyone entertained for days. Did we party? We most certainly did. Did we sleep soundly after cycling back to our tents? Absolutely.

I found a smashing little campsite run by cycling enthusiasts Phil and Georgina. It's very basic - my kind of site - no posh add-ons. Proper camping, in other words. A small bit of field on a hill with a shower behind the pub and a loo and that's it. Oh, and a view over the Colden Valley and owls to dream by and a wren to sing you awake each morning.

Cycling produces endorphins and the views produce a feeling of exhilaration. It can also be enormously frustrating. I've grown soft on the Oxfordshire flatlands. A journey into Hebden Bridge to watch the Tour whizz through was a scary 40 mph descent. The journey back was more like 4 mph. Apparently locals race up the Buttress. I've walked up it with a laden bike many times (tent, stove, kitchen sink, the lot). This time I nearly lost the bike at the top when my cleated shoes slipped on the wet cobbles on the brow. I had visions of it sliding all the way back down into town, much like Laurel and Hardy's famous piano delivery to 1127 Walnut Avenue.

The New Delight Inn next to the campsite has been recently taken over. Jack is doing a grand job with help from some very able staff and a chef who somehow managed to rustle up excellent breakfast for the campers on the Saturday and Sunday. As for the Yorkshire puddings filled with steak and ale, beef or Cumberland sausage and the humongous piles of chips and gravy and side salads...It took more than a few hills to work that lot off. They have a fabulous range of ales, as well. Pennine Gold from from Bridestones, the local brewery, is an excellent session beer. Lanterne Rouge is a malty red ale from Wharfe Bank that comes in at 4.4% and you really would be riding at the back of the peloton if you had a pint or two of that the night before. Bridestones do a pale ale called Trouser Town at a whacking 6.2%.

I had a brilliant spec on Commercial Road in Hebden Bridge. For several hours beforehand the crowds engaged in witty banter - Yorkshire humour is very dry and ironic and as sharp as razors. The leaders had a terrific reception. The peloton, as usual, raced past so fast you could hardly see who was positioned where. It was a bit of a surprise to see the rear looking utterly exhausted, though. It was only day two of the race and they weren't even half-way through yet. The Yorkshire hills must have been a bit of a surprise for some of the riders. They might not be the Alps or the Pyrenees, but they are short and severe and unremitting.

So, the Lake District for the next British Départ? Porlock Hill? The Welsh mountains? I favour Scotland, especially if it achieves independence. Now there would be a challenge for my Oxfordshire legs.


Bridestones Brewing

Hebden Bridge Camping

The Tour de France official website

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