Words: Tom Southam | Photography: Kayti Peschke | Date:
Film: Andrew Telling / Knucklehead
The man who never looked up
I do this thing all the time, when passing through places I’m unaware I’ve been before, when I suddenly stop what I am doing, look up and down a stretch of road, and say to whomever I am with, ‘I have raced my bike down here.’
It happens all the time, all over the world, and I imagine if you spend a lot of time with me it must get pretty boring. I raced internationally for nearly twenty years, and when you think about it, that is a lot of hills, a lot of corners, and a lot of tarmac. I still recognize them, more often than not, as if the intense focus that I put into my racing career burned these stretches of road like scars in my mind.
But the strange thing about it isn’t so much that the roads are so familiar, it is the fact that everything else surrounding the roads – the locations, the names of the towns, the villages, the views don’t even exist in my mind. I am the man who never looked up, or around, or anywhere but at the road ahead.
Then there was the Rapha Continental, in Yorkshire.
Come and ride in Yorkshire, they said. We’ll explore: the Howardian Hills, the North York Moors, and the Yorkshire Dales. It would be a first for me, but exploring on a bicycle isn’t something that comes naturally to a bike racer, former or not. It is a skill that has to be learned, like patience or golf. Like many bike racers, I’ve always looked at riding a bike in the same way that I would go about robbing a bank: get in, get the job done, get out as quickly as possible and change out of your disguise.
But the Continental, I figured, was about more than the bike. It was about a journey and a place. It was about learning and seeing something new.
Now, I could tell you the names of a hundred good bike riders from Yorkshire, and there would be a hundred more that I’ve missed out. I could tell you that I’ve raced there countless times: the Ryedale GP, Richmond GP, East Yorkshire Classic, and so on and so forth.
A cursory pre-ride glance at our route for the Continental sprang up a few town names that I remembered. But what did Yorkshire even look like? How was I to know? In my racing days my eyes had been fixed on those low horizons: the wheel in front, the next bend, the crest of the hill.
On the first day of the Continental we rolled clear of York and crossed over the undulating hills of the Wolds. As we did Gem told me about her trip to Sochi for the winter Olympics, and I was fascinated because I’ve never been to an Olympics, and I’ve never been to Russia. I am amazed by other people’s jobs. I’ve only ever done mine, you see.
It struck me that I’d met Gem quite a few times now, on various Rapha photo shoots, but having never ridden together we’d never really spoken that much. You learn a lot about someone when you’re both sat in the saddle next to each other all day, and in my companions there was so much to start to learn. Tom Donhou, it turned out, has ridden across the Gobi desert on a mountain bike he’d found beside a skip.
In time the gentle climbs of the Wolds gave way to the twisting routes through the Howardian hills. I felt hidden there, tucked away in the quiet lanes and high hedgerows, safe and happy on a bike and in conversation. Our meandering route eventually took us past Ampleforth Abbey to the foot of the White Horse. The climb up, our last of the first day, that took us past a giant artificially whitened horse, cut into the limestone in 1857 by a Victorian philanthropist, granted us a spectacular view over the Vale of York.
On the second day we passed through Bedale, a town whose name I suddenly recognized. My great-grandfather was the master of the Bedale hunt. I have a picture of him and his pack hounds of hounds, every one of them (amazingly) looking right into the camera, on my wall at home. I have looked at that picture for hours, and yet never once thought about where Bedale actually was.
The realisation prompted a phone call to my mother at the next stop.
—“I didn’t know that your side of the family was from Yorkshire.”
—“Yes, your grandmother was from Northallerton.”
We’d passed through Northallerton that morning. Yorkshire I discovered is in my DNA. The Continental wasn’t just teaching me about Yorkshire; it was teaching me about myself.
Close to the end of the second day of the Continental – this thing that I was learning to be a part of, that was about cycling, and talking and looking around, and learning about places you might have been but never really seen – as we climbed toward the summit of Trapping Hill, and I felt the full weight of the air we’d ridden into, cool and heavy, the heat from earlier in the afternoon long gone, leaving us the vacuum that is an evening chill, Ricky pointed to the left.
—“That’s a curlew. They nest on the ground.”
It was. It does.
But, who’d ever looked at a bird on their bike before?
I looked over and watched, perhaps for the first time in my life, the territorial flight pattern of a curlew as it circled its breeding grounds, listening properly to its bubbling call.
“You can see skylarks up here, too sometimes,” James chipped in. “You see the way they take off, they just go up vertically.”
I was amazed suddenly by just how distinct the curlew’s long bill is and how many birds there seemed to be, the massive expanse of sky seemed filled with birdlife. It was then I looked back up the road and noticed my companions had eased away. I’d stopped pedaling. Stopped my constant physical quest for forward motion, and instead I’d been looking at something.
By the third day my eyes had left the road completely. As we passed through dry-stone walls and climbed up on to the Yorkshire Dales to reach the summit of Malham Rakes, the sheer scale of it all took me aback. We were high up enough for the sky to be seemingly within touching distance and yet the peaks still towered up even higher still in the distance. The famous Three Peaks themselves were all in view: Whernside, Ingelborough and Pen-Y-Ghent.
As the sun tried but failed to make its way through the indecisive cloud, we passed a lonely ice-cream van, parked next to a cattle grid.
“Imagine this place in the winter.” Tom said, and I tried not to.
At the Crown Inn in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, where we ate another pub lunch (and James impressed me by drinking a mid-ride pint) I noticed that there was a plaque with all of the winners of the Three Peaks running race on the wall. Walkers filled the pub, drifting in and out of the garden, and made me enjoy the activity that these hills encourage.
As we pushed on toward our final destination, we climbed out of Settle and up over High Hill. There is no hiding out on these hills; underneath a sign that reads 20%, Tom noticed a pile of vomit, left behind, we figured by a rider who could learn a thing or two about pacing themselves.
On the other side of the descent when we stopped to regroup and refuel, a gentleman appeared out of his house and asked with a smile if we were lost. I love that being friendly is one of the things that Yorkshire people seem so proud to be. We told him no, and I could almost sense his disappointment that he can’t help in some way.
Yorkshire, after all, is a hotbed of cycling. We were just outside Gargrave, which even I know is one of the more important places in the eyes of the Yorkshire cycling community. The town sits right on the edge of the Dales, and is where the local bunch rides used to meet and still finish to this day. Alongside the quiet river that runs through the town, sits the memorial to British professional Dave Rayner, who died in tragic circumstances at just 27 years of age, 20 years ago. It seemed fitting to me to pass through here on our exploration of the county.
We finally arrived in the magnificent surrounds of Broughton Hall, our final destination for the three days of riding. I sat for a while in a room full of volumes of books, which staggeringly date back to the 14th century, and realised that the Continental hadn’t, in fact, taken me anywhere new at all in a geographical sense.
The UK is a small country, and during the three days I had been doing that thing I do when I would see a road I’d raced on, and felt compelled to tell my companions that I had raced my bike there before. I saw the races that I’d done as we’d crisscrossed the roads of another life. A life determined by results, and by the racing that I thought was the answer to the questions inside myself.
But this time I had been travelling a very different path. I could see the curlews now, and the skylarks, and at so many stages of my trip across Yorkshire I’d felt that I could see for miles and miles and miles. Miles of sky, miles of limestone hills and views that I’d passed before but had never really seen. Yorkshire, once just a world of tough competition and gritty racing, became a place in whose magnitude I lost myself.
Surroundings change, terrain can vary, but the thing I found in Yorkshire and through the Continental, was that it isn’t just our surroundings, but at times it is the way we see them that makes them special, and that it is the way we choose to look at things is what makes us who we are.