I am not a cyclist.
I don’t know my hybrids from my roadbikes, I don’t have a clue what a derailleur is, and I used to think pannier was a misspelling of my favourite Indian cheese. I really wish that was a joke… Until three weeks ago, I’d been on a bike for a grand total of about ten hours in the last ten years, approximately nine hours of which were spent on the floor. I’d blamed uneven paths, dodgy weather and, on one occasion, a pesky bunch of Vietnamese frogs whose cacophonic chorus of ribbits totally ruined my concentration. But it wasn’t them. It was me. I just wasn’t into it.
I remember the exact moment this changed. I was rattling through Cambodia on one of many long bus journeys during a six-month round-the-world-trip in 2011. I’d just finished reading an amazing book, so I reached into my bag to pull out the next. It wasn’t there. DISASTER! Luckily Rob had had the foresight to bring a spare, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. It was called Thunder and Sunshine, the second part of a round-the-world bike adventure undertaken by someone called Alastair Humphreys. A story about cycling? So not my kind of thing. But Rob insisted. “Just give it a try. Trust me”. Begrudgingly, I opened it and started reading, convinced that I’d give in by page three and spend the rest of the journey trying to doze. By the time we arrived in Siem Reap, I’d nearly finished it – all 340 pages.
Alastair’s cycling was slow travel; a way of seeing the world with new eyes by taking the time to really savour everything it has to offer. He wrote of landscapes unfolding gently beside him; of meaningful encounters with local residents; of the dispelling of cultural preconceptions. Cycling wasn’t just a way for him to reach a destination. His cycling journey was his destination.
This was my kind of cycling. Inspired, I returned from my trip and began devouring cycling-related travel prose, attending inspirational talks by round-the-world cyclists, and even hatching grand plans to travel across Europe by bike. I closed my eyes and I was there, slowly pootling along the winding coastline of Italy, stopping every few hours at cafés for slices of pizza and glasses of wine. It seemed so romantic; so perfect; so simple. Except there was something missing. Something rather crucial. I still hadn’t actually done any cycling.
Two years passed. Cycling, so it seemed, was to be another of my ill-fated ideas, like that dress that I’d also started making two years ago. That dress only made it as far as the pattern-cutting stage. But then one month ago, I was struck down with a fever; a highly contagious fever that had swept across Yorkshire for nearly a year. The source of its outbreak was the announcement that Yorkshire – that’s Yorkshire, England – was to be the host of the Grand Départ of the 2014 Tour de France. Eh? Yorkshire responded as if this was the most normal thing in the world, and the fever – or Tour de France fever as it’s officially known – spread. Symptoms were numerous, from the compulsion to prefix all words with ‘Le’, to an insatiable desire to knit yellow bunting. My prognosis? I finally began cycling.
That first cycle brought back memories of my four year-old self learning how to ride a bike. My legs were shaking, my stomach was churning and within minutes, I’d careered straight into a wheelie bin. It was not going to plan. Crumpled on the floor, I pouted pitifully at Rob who, to his credit, did a rather excellent job at suppressing his amusement as he scooped me up from the floor and wiped away the blood that was oozing from my elbow. I was beginning to remember why cycling and I had never quite hit it off. I got back on and tried again, only this time, I didn’t fall off. Ten; twenty; thirty minutes passed without incident, and then something strange happened. I started to enjoy it. No, scrap that, I began to LOVE it. Cycling was brilliant! The hours wiled away as the Leeds-Liverpool canal unfurled alongside me, transforming slowly from suburbia to expansive green fields. I’d followed this route on foot hundreds of times before, but now it looked completely different. I was looking at it with new eyes.
It’s hard to believe that that was only three weeks ago. I now cycle to work (up a MASSIVE hill, may I add), I cycle at weekends, and when I’m not cycling, I’m thinking about when I next will be. That’s right – my name’s Lisa and I LOVE cycling. So when Rob suggested cycling to a big hill, 45 miles away, in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales to watch the Tour de France Peloton whirr past for a grand total of 40 seconds last weekend, I answered in the way that any sane, logical person would. HELL YES.
The weekend that followed was incredible. Apart from one minor collision with a hedge (don’t laugh), I cycled without incident for nearly a third of Stage One of the 2014 Tour de France (and back). That’s 90 miles in two days. I watched Yorkshire’s landscapes slowly morph from stone houses bedecked with yellow bunting, to imposing crags overlooking patchwork green valleys. I pedalled for hours in torrential rain, freewheeled through tiny villages, and climbed ¾ of the first categorised climb of the 2014 Tour de France. I even wildcamped for the first time, using my first cycling odyssey as an excuse to have my first microadventure, too.
What made my first cycling microadventure really special, though, is that I wasn’t alone. Thousands joined me as I cycled from Leeds to Buckden, just a small fraction of the reported five million that lined the Yorkshire Grand Départ route over the Saturday and Sunday. A rainbow of lycra decorated the Dales’ tarmac roads and green fells as, for once, cars were outnumbered by cyclists. There were serious road racers on £4000 Cannondales, leisurely groups of tandem cyclists, and even Wallace and Gromit riding side-by-side on fancy road bikes. Yes, really.
When we finally reached the summit of Kiddstones Pass (or Côte de Cray, as the French renamed it), the Dales had become unrecognisable. Thousands of cyclists had gathered, lining the route in preparation for the Peloton’s passing. I felt like I was in a Dali movie as I watched men in dresses scrawl messages on the tarmac, using colourful chalk sold to them by entrepreneurial children. A polka dot sumo wrestler cycled past me, followed by another man in a dress and an elderly man with a dog in a basket. He was wearing a flat cap, naturally. (The man, not the dog.) Raucous cheers broke the Dales’ usual tranquillity and calm, the most rapturous of which were reserved for every child that tackled the climb to compete for their own place as King or Queen of the Mountain.
It was bonkers, but utterly magical, and when that Peloton eventually whirred past me for those 40 seconds, I screamed ‘allez allez allez’ like my life depended on it. I meant every word.
People often talk about the ‘legacy’ of big sporting events. It can be a meaningless buzzword, used disingenuously by Suits trying to justify huge amounts of cash spent on an event. But for me, the Yorkshire Grand Depart’s legacy has already begun. It’s made me finally stop dreaming about cycling and start doing, it’s ignited my lust for worldwide cycle adventures, and it’s made me prouder than ever to call Yorkshire home.
Maybe there’s a cyclist in me after all. Merci, Le Tour Yorkshire. Merci.