Stephen Dyster was asked by someone which season he liked best for cycling.
Ice in the jockey wheel. Every few yards a stop to scrape it out. Obvious really. A Brompton with a three-speed hub and a two-speed derailleur so low to the ground would struggle as the snow got deeper. Why didn’t I bring the hack or the mountain bike? We just aren’t prepared for winter in England! All had started so well, rolling steadily over the snow and ice that covered one of those useful traffic free routes. It was the clichéd winter-wonderland in the urban waste.
It doesn’t do to fuss too much about weather in England. Folk who fret too much with it are destined to spend a life in front of the television. Non-cyclists often ask “What do you do when it rains?” The answer is that, like others out in the rain, I get wet, unless I put my waterproofs on.
Looking back, one balmy summer evening while sipping tea in the back garden, it struck me that, for the first time in a good while the seasons had been almost what they should have been. No, summer was not always dry, nor was winter always cold, but the seasonal distinctions that have become so blurred seemed to have come back. I found that thought very comforting. I know there’ll be guffaws, so I’ll refine it a bit. Where I was at any particular time seemed to have a greater seasonal distinction than had been the norm in the last few years.
At one time, especially when I slept in a bedroom with views over open fields, I would leave the curtains open so that as the summer sun rose I could leap from my bed – all very well until the double-decker bus pulled into the bus stop just outside the house - and pull on the cycling gear to head off on an extra long commute or morning ride followed by a siesta in the shade with Test Match Special on the radio. Often a ride in the evening as well, coming home in the last of the evening light. You see I like being out on the bike when the sun is low in the sky.
That’s the drawback with summer, in my opinion, especially in Scotland: daylight is simply too long. So, in summer I look forward to winter when it is quite easy to set of as it gets light and return just as it gets dark. Of course, in winter the first warmth of spring, the first cut of grass, and the scent of may blossom appeal more than constant cleaning of drive train and being togged up like Jack Hawkins on the bridge of a World War Two destroyer. Having enough of that, it is only natural that a cyclist’s fancy turns to spring. Even so, the frost-ridden days that encrusted trees with thick hoar-rime for days on end, making for danger on the back roads but perfect off-roading, can provide superlative riding. Snow churning, lights piercing the gathering dusk, frost on fleece, condensation on spectacles; not knowing how cold it is until halting to take a photograph or two of the Wrekin and the outlines of the border hills, then to the open-fire. That for me is the perfect winter’s ride, followed by an evening with maps planning longer summer jaunts.
Winter is actually the only time I really enjoy using my mountain bike. I’m less than not much of a mountain-biker. I was fortunate enough to go on a Trail Leader course. The instruction was excellent, though I have a long way to go before having even moderate mountain-biking skills. Interesting were the different, equally valid opinions, regarding the purpose of riding; on the one hand, speed and skill, on the other, looking at the scenery and to get to a place of interest inaccessible by road. Rather a bald, though I hope not unfair, division. No prizes for guessing which side I was on.
Heading for southern Europe before the heat sets in has been less successful for me. Snow is to be expected in the highest passes but has come down to meet me at lower points causing my friends to verge on hypothermia and confirming local perceptions of the more peculiar qualities of the British abroad. The residents of Italy’s Monte Simbruini thought the ski season was over and looked askance when the snow fell and the Brits were still cycling. Having said that, I had a wonderful week in the Alpujarras and Sierra Nevada one February, with winter on the mountain tops and spring in the valleys and high pastures.
The start of spring might be taken to be the sound of the first cuckoo, though it was once suggested by a neighbour that the first appearance of cycling shorts was as reliable a harbinger as any. It isn’t just optimistic cyclists who suffer delusions of summer on the first sunny day in March. Saint George is a somewhat peculiar patron saint for England, especially when there are so many better qualified. However, out and about near Tibberton, just into Shropshire, he appeared halfway over a hedge. I sincerely hold to the view that people who create such artefacts as this should be given an OBE, if not a peerage; likewise, those who plant banks of daffodils along the roadsides.
Maybe it is the sap rising, the slightest hint of sunshine and the sudden showers of hail that suggest shorts were overoptimistic, that make spring such a jolly time to be out and awheel. Spring is, in my view, the perfect time to head to the west coast of Scotland. True, it can be cold and snow can be a distinct prospect. Hey-ho, last time I was in Scotland in March and April cold weather clothing was parcelled off home at Ullapool and tent erected to get out of the sun in the early afternoon. Lovely long days and nary a midge; views etched by diamonds and not one scratch.
Fortunately, there are few more enchanting places than Britain as the spring time rolls northwards. At one time I always toured through East Anglia and Essex over Easter, carting hockey sticks and kit to play in a festival. Daffodils and primroses in the banks of sunken lanes, gentle country anciently settled with timber-framed homeliness in Suffolk Pink, Essex Green, and thatch.
Touring in familiar lands or head for somewhere new? The thrill of the Sierra Nevada and Granada or the certainty of warm welcomes in familiar country inns. Stress such as this and the anxiety it causes are the curse of modern life.
When I was teacher, I looked forward to using the summer holidays for a long tour and worked like stink to mark coursework, sort out the start of the autumn term, and do all those things that interfered with cycling, before the end of the summer term. I once took some short pieces of coursework in my pannier when heading off on a three-week hostelling tour. Disaster: purchase of kippers for tea from a smokehouse a few miles from the hostel; ill-wrapped; leakage; greasy, smelly scripts. Dear me. Never again
So, panniers packed and prepared for the final bell of the term. For weeks I had fallen asleep with my mind singing “Over the hills and far away.” Then away it was. Though, on reflection, it was the evening rides around south Northamptonshire that form summer’s enduring memory, especially in the company of a chap named Rob Clipsham. Lively conversation, Hook Norton beer and the rich ironstone cottages that out-Cotswold
Another summer favourite was the after school dash to Cambridge for the train to King’s Lynn to visit my parents; and cycling to supervise Duke of Edinburgh’s Award groups in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Derbyshire; and a romantic summer night cycle from Banbury to the other side of Hereford to surprise a girlfriend who was canoeing down the Wye and had stopped to camp on the banks of that fine river; and getting off the bike to lie in the shade and stare up through the boughs to follow the lark ascending and glimpse timelessness. In the fourteenth century William Langland began his poem Piers Ploughman with the words “In somer seson whan soft was the sonne”. I won’t argue with that, though “warme was the raine” might describe recent Augusts more accurately.
Summer is a good time to head to the far north of the British Isles. The daylight of the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland Islands, and the far north of Scotland invite the kind of timeless meandering beloved of many cyclists. The midges too are tabbies curled on the mat by the fire compared to the man-eating tigers of Shiel Bridge and other west Highland beauty spots.
Once upon a time, my big autumn trip was generally to the Highlands of Scotland, drawn by the burning colours of dying bracken and that wonderful escape brought by the first breath after opening the door of the Caledonian Sleeper at Rannoch or Bridge of Orchy or Spean Bridge. I never had worse than fifty-fifty weather while the churning rivers and pine scented lochside roads compensate for much precipitation. I have never got as soaked through in the Highlands in autumn as in summer. And what can one say when the weather is good? Beauty that fills all the senses; rich contrasts for the eyes, the roar of water for the ears; soft sun on the skin; searing clarity for the nose and lungs; and for the tongue? Well there’s nothing like a pot of tea and a sugary millionaire shortbread in a Highland tea-room. Failing that a wee dram will do.
And so back to winter. Misty-eyed and sentimental over the year in the saddle, maps out with next year in view and commutes home under the stars with shadow cast by the moon.
There are surprisingly few days on which one can not cycle due to poor weather. Ice is my bane. I have an acquaintance who is desperately waiting for another cold snap to try out his studded tyres. I have slid around often enough not to share his enthusiasm. Snow can be good fun – I always found that I got to work when the phone calls were coming in from people unable to get their cars out of their driveways – though the attraction of being chilled to the bone declines each year. I can see a time when I’ll be joining the Mallorca migration which more and more cyclists are taking part in.
I was asked by someone which season I liked best for cycling. It was one of those pub conversations. I couldn’t decide. So, I said the present one was best; whichever one was current. I’m not sure I was right. I have a sneaking feeling that my favourite cycling season is the next one. Or was it the last one?
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2020