Bank holidays were not invented to facilitate the mowing of grass or the hanging of wallpaper. Bank holidays were created for riding bikes. We all know that, right?
Where did you go this bank holiday? Did you get a few hours on the bike – or a few days? I managed two days and, even though there was some weather, they were probably the best two days’ riding I’ve had so far this year.
I’ve been organising an annual trip for my group of riding buddies since 2012. Originally there were six of us from one village (well, five plus Little Andy, who had honorary-resident status). We started camping in Wales, then did the top of Scotland before people called it the North Coast 500. We’ve also done France and a fly-ride to Spain, but mostly we just head North of the Border.
This year, of course, I wasn’t supposed to be here: I set the trip up for them and wished them well. But as my Big Stupid Trip of a Lifetime has been delayed, I’m still here. I can’t get away for the full four-day trip – which was headed to Skye this year – but I can join them at Moffat in the Scottish Borders for the last night and the final ride back to Lincolnshire.
I’ve been desperate to go, as I enjoy riding with these guys – but I’m also slightly nervous. My longest ride since crashing in South Africa eight weeks ago has been 90 miles. With three months of day-long riding planned as I head to Australia, I needed to double-check my bike-fitness. Two full days in the saddle should do it.
The destination is a very familiar one: the outstanding Buccleuch Arms Hotel in Moffat (if you haven’t been, you should go). The cross-country run there is one of my all-time favourite rides, heading up across the Wolds, crossing the Humber to the North York Moors, through the Pennines and into the Borders. It’s utterly, mind-blowingly, staggeringly brilliant… but I don’t do that.
A late start means just rushing up the A1 and A1(M) – but for the purposes of checking my bike-fitness, that’s fine. I know I’ll have to do some mile-munching: so can I do it? Yes – it’s easy. My Kawasaki Z1000SX is designed to gobble up distance… though probably with a less-tall rider on it. My knees are just starting to twinge when I get to Wetherby Services to fill up. I grab a forecourt picnic, watching Hells Angels from all around the world (I saw colours from New Zealand, Bratislava, England and more) filling up their cars. Not one of them is on a bike.
I press on towards Darlington, actually enjoying the new stretch of A1(M) north of Leeming Bar. Yes, it’s a three-lane road, but at least it’s not straight – just one long, gentle curve after another. It’s hardly thrilling but at least it’s not as dull as the dead-straight run past Ripon that precedes it.
The real riding begins when I pick up the A68. I love this road, which rises and falls like a rollercoaster. It’s hysterical on the SX, airbox howling at high revs in fourth gear as it leaps over the crests. There seemed to be about a million scooterists heading south in clumps of four or five, collecting cars behind them as they laboured up the steeper hills. I won’t mock anyone for enjoying riding anything with an engine, but if I was going to… Still, they’re having fun. At about 30mph uphill, into the wind. Bless them.
I turned onto the A689 just as the clouds began to do that tantalising fan dance with the sun: now you see it, now you don’t… This is just one of the many brilliant roads in this bit of the Pennines – and also the highest. At 627m above sea level, Killhope Summit is England’s highest A-road. It’s also a wildly scenic one so I plan to start taking pictures… but just past the lead-mining museum (where there’s a crashed BMW R1200RT being attended to by the local police) the clouds close back over the sun and the rain starts. Bugger!
It’s wet all the way through Alston (not fun on the steep cobbles in the centre) and on to Brampton. I’d planned to do the fun ride – through Eskdalemuir, possibly all the way to Selkirk on the B709 before dropping down the excellent A708 – but after seeing the traction-control light flashing on wet, polished tarmac one time too many, I opt for the lazy convenience of the M6 and M74. Of course, when I get to Carlisle to get on the motorway, the sun comes out…
I get to the Buccleuch nice and early, putting my bike in one of the garages and having a good chat with Dave, the boss. He knows the roads round here like the back of his hand and is always generating routes for guys staying in the hotel. The rest of the guys arrive just as I’m finishing my first pint – just in time to get a round in. I don’t drink a lot when I’m riding next day, but a beer just goes so well the steak pie.
Next day we make a steady start, as the steady drizzle starts to fall. Our plan is to head up the A701 past the Devil’s Beeftub, then swing up past the Tala reservoir and Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall to St Mary’s Loch, taking the A708 back to Moffat before heading south. A roadwork sign says the road’s shut 10 miles ahead… That’s enough to get us to the turning for the lochs. We set off on a deserted road – only to be stopped after about seven miles, a mile short of where we need to be. Still, turning round and riding a totally deserted road again isn’t so bad.
We stop again in Moffat to say goodbye to Rosso, who’s staying up for a few days before going to the TT. As we go south, he goes up the A708 and does the ride in the other direction… Git!
We blast our way back to England and initially I’m retracing the previous day’s route from Carlisle to Alston. The guys fill up there but, for some reason, I’m too stupid to top up and synchronise my tank with them – which I always tell other people to do. This will come back to haunt me.
From Alston, we take two of my favourite roads: the B6277 to Middleton-in-Teesdale; followed by the B6276 to Brough. They’re just majestic – quiet, flowing, with enough tighter turns and free-range sheep to keep you on your toes. We drop down to Kirkby Stephen and into the Eden Valley on the B6259 – passing equal numbers of traveller camps and posts put up to keep travellers from camping on the verges. It must be Appleby Horse Fair time.
As we cross from Cumbria into North Yorkshire, the surface changes for the better, the road widens fractionally, the rain stops and the sun comes out. It’s a fantastic ride down to Garsdale Head and then on the immaculate A684 into Hawes. We stop for lunch in the Wensleydale Creamery (cheese sandwiches all round – very nice).
There’s a quick route conflab: do we want to take the full back-road ride, dropping from Aysgarth down to Bolton Abbey; or do people want to get home faster? As the first few spots of rain start to fall, the fast-way home wins the vote. It’s still a good ride, at first, following a nutter with a CB aerial on his Fiesta: I’m not overtaking him, as I want him in front of me when he loses it so I can stay out of harm’s way.
Inevitably, when we get onto the A1(M) at Leeming Bar, the sun comes out again. I’ve been playing fuel-light roulette since Hawes: the Garmin told me it was 56 miles to the services at Wetherby; the SX onboard computer said it had a 67-mile range. By the time we get on the motorway, the numbers are a little more in my favour: 28 miles to go versus a 43-mile range. But halfway there the range-readout goes blank and I’m holding my breath, riding on fumes and optimism. I make it to Wetherby with 195.3 miles on the trip – a new best for the SX – and put 18.97 litres into its 19-litre tank… The petrol’s wildly overpriced, but I have to know just how little is left in the tank.
The group detonates at this point: Hoody heads home to Humberside; Little Andy peels off just past Grantham. I stop in the village with the three guys who still live there, drinking a single small beer on the drive of what used to be my house, as Jamie still lives next door. Then I ride back to my flat, before my ex-wife gets home. It’s a bitter-sweet end to the trip.
It has been a fantastic two days for me. Despite the weather they hit in the Highlands, the guys are all raving about the riding – the A87, the A830 from Fort Bill to Mallaig, the A828 to Oban. And the final day, with the patches of sunshine, was the icing on the cake.
That’s what Bank Holidays are for – much better than cutting the lawn or doing DIY.