Hiding Ducks

As I cycle up and down the hills and valleys of my local area I’m reminded regularly that it’s by bike that you truly get a feel for a place; you see, hear, and smell things that you probably wouldn’t through the windscreen of a car.

You also truly appreciate the ups and downs of the road; there’s a famous Hemingway quote along these lines: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them…”

Over time, I have come to associate particular places – towns, villages, rivers, hills, junctions, bumps in the road – with certain sights and sounds.

So, if I think about riding out across the coastal flatlands towards Pilling and Eagland Hill, I’m reminded of the Border Collie on a short rope waiting to jump out at me. If I ride to Kirkby Lonsdale, even before I set off I can already feel the air vibrate with the primal roar of a dozen motorbikes shooting past me (because in Kirkby Lonsdale, the cyclist is trespassing in biker country).

Geese in V Formation (Image: Wikimedia commons)

Geese in V Formation (Image: Wikimedia commons)

And there are countless others too; the Sea Bass fishermen lining the banks at Sandside; the wandering rural visitors eating ice creams and stepping into the road unannounced at Scorton; the geese honking in V formation over the farmland at Stakepool and Scronkey (I know, great name isn’t it?); and the cruel battering headwind (or kind and welcome tailwind) of Morecambe seafront.

One of my favourites though, has to be the ducks at Dunsop Bridge.

The village of Dunsop Bridge in the Trough of Bowland is a quiet rural idyll and a favourite spot of mine where the peace is only broken by weekend walkers, cyclists…oh, and a village green which is inhabited by approximately 7 million ducks! 

Ducks - difficult to hide...you would think!(Image: pshab - Flickr cc)

Ducks – difficult to hide…you would think!(Image: pshab – Flickr cc)

Ok, maybe not quite 7 million, but enough to disorientate your average cyclist and make a head count all but impossible. 

As you enter the village you hear their cacophony well before you see them; if such a thing as a carpet of ducks exists, then this is it. These ducks are ALWAYS there. ALWAYS. And so even as you semi-shout over their incessant quacking to make your voice heard to your riding companion, or you idly feed them the final crumbs from whatever mid-ride snack you’re nibbling on, they are so ever-present that before long you barely register their presence.

And then one day as you enter the village you think, ‘strange, seems quiet today, where are the ducks?’ And the village green is just that: green, and duck free. And in a strange and forlorn way you miss them, perhaps because it seems sinister; how can 7 million ducks disappear? Where are they?

That is a lot of ducks to conceal. 

If they were simply out for a swim in the river the water would be a teeming mass of duck. But it isn’t. So where are they? On a menu somewhere?

And then you return to Dunsop Bridge a few weeks later to find 7 million ducks – surely the same 7 million? – very much present and correct and jockeying for position on that cramped and crowded village green. 

I’m not sure ducks was what Hemingway had in mind when extolling the virtues of travel by bike, but either way, it’s a mystery.


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Autumn Cycling in August

When it comes to dealing with the UK weather, I’ve decided defiance is the name of the game.

After many weeks of welcome summer sun, here in the north west of England in August we seem to be stuck on a loop, in classic British style, where the weather is by no means dramatically bad but, to use the terminology of our friends in the Met Office, temperatures are below the seasonal average, unusually strong winds for the time of year are persisting, and another band of low pressure is coming in off the Atlantic. The forecasters call this weather fresh; I have other, less polite ways of describing it.

And what does all this mean to us long-suffering northern cyclists? It means arm-warmers, knee-warmers, warm socks, thermal vests and, if things don’t improve, an inevitable lapse into full warm winter legs, long-sleeved jackets and overshoes.

Hence my current mood of defiance.

If I’m going to have to dig out all that autumnal kit which has been tucked away under the bed since May then I’m not going down without a fight. If I pull on my long sleeved jacket and full length tights for a bike ride in August, it will be with a heavy heart and only when I’m satisfied that I’ve resisted for as long as is sensibly possible.

June and July looked like this (Image: starshine_diva Flickr CC)

June and July looked like this
(Image: starshine_diva Flickr CC)

Some of you out there might accuse me of being over-dramatic about all this; after all, the weather conditions are really not that bad, and are still more than acceptable for riding in – but it’s all about the context. We’ve had a good summer: June and July offered settled summer sunshine and minimal rain, and allowed me to feel like a slick and swarthy Italian on the bike whilst cultivating impressively sharp tan-lines. But it’s been cruelly snatched away from us, and it’s still August.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Did I mention it’s still August? With no prospect of further sunshine and high temperatures on the horizon it might as well be September, October, November…

I had a ride with a good friend of mine recently; a man who reacts to the weather in the same way as a finely tuned European cyclist. His philosophy seems to consist of dressing for weather conditions at least one-season worse than we’re currently experiencing, and aiming for a permanent state of over-heating. Needless to say he was wearing full-length tights and long sleeved jacket. Admittedly, I had, with a heavy heart, gone with arm-warmers, but I kept my spirits up by sticking with the summer bib-shorts.

Was I cold? No, not really, but it was borderline (and I was glad the threatening black clouds didn’t deposit their load).

August is looking more like this (Image: Bidgee - CC Wikipedia)

August is looking more like this
(Image: Bidgee – CC Wikipedia)

It was after reflecting on this need for arm-warmers in August that I felt compelled to adopt my current defiant mood, and so during an after-work ride a couple of days later, with the temperature on my Garmin dropping as low as 11.1 degrees C (I know, it’s precise isn’t it), I persisted for 30 glorious (and decidedly chilly) miles wearing bib-shorts and short sleeves.

Granted, I had arm-warmers tucked away in the jersey pocket just in case my will power wavered, and it’s true that I may have been wearing a thermal base-layer to keep the worst of the chills away, but importantly, all outward appearances suggested a cyclist out for a summer ride on a bright August evening.

Was I cold? Well, I was certainly pedalling pretty hard to try and keep the engine running hot. It was when I returned home and hit the sumptuous warmth of our kitchen that I realised that ‘yes’, I was definitely cold. But I’d made my point.

To whom?

Good question. To the weather gods, I suppose.

So the plan is to resist. To defy, ignore, grit my teeth, barrel on through, and generally continue to give the appearance of a happy summer cyclist with crisp tan-lines. I know that once I admit defeat and dig out the warm kit then the dam will have been breached, and that will become my default-go-to-kit prior to every ride. Once you’ve wrapped up warm for the year there’s no going back.

And if I come down with a head cold or a chest infection as a result of my bullish response to the chilly weather? Well, my friend the finely tuned Euro cyclist will have the last laugh I suppose.

Maybe he’ll lend me one of his bobble hats.

Posted in cycling kit, real life cycling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Counting Teeth

How many teeth do your chain-rings have?

Seems like an innocuous question, but the answer will tell you a fair bit about what kind of cyclist you are talking to.

Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not judging; if someone has next to no interest in gear ratios and could only answer this question with a wild guess at best, that’s fine by me. That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. There’s more to life, after all.

Isn’t there?

Some would disagree: racers who need to understand this stuff to maximise their competitive advantage; practical types who have an inbuilt need to understand the workings of anything mechanical; bike snobs who don’t like to accept that it’s possible to enjoy riding a bike without it consuming you; amateur mechanics who would never dream of taking their bike to a shop to have someone else work on it (how can you possibly maintain your own bike if you don’t understand it…etc, etc).


Just to be clear, all these points of view are fine by me. I’m a live and let live kind of cyclist. Ragtime Cyclist is a broad church, so to speak.

Personally speaking, my chain-rings are 50/34t: a compact. 

In some parts this fact might elicit a whole new debate of its own (the relative merits of a compact chain-set, and it’s slightly lower range of available gears…discuss), but let’s save that for another day. I consider myself only vaguely practical at best, but as the author of this website I am setting myself up as someone who knows what they are talking about. If someone asked me how many teeth my chain-rings have and I was found stuttering and stumbling for an answer, that just wouldn’t look good. 

So I make a point of understanding all manner of bike related details; some of it really interesting, some of it not so much.

When it comes to your chain-rings, If you fall into that category of ‘don’t know, don’t care’, well done. Continue. If you are more of a ‘don’t know and really wish I did’, try this guide from the ‘over 40 cyclist’ . If you’re under 40, I think that’s ok, and all the information still applies. 

The point I’m trying to make is not about chain-rings, but about cycling in general. There are those who find the world of cycling intimidating, impenetrable, archaic and clique-y, but ultimately, however much or little you know, that’s fine. Some know the ins and outs of every moving part on their bike, and plenty of others just ride the thing.

Sure, if you find yourself stranded on some windswept Cumbrian hillside in 3 degrees Celsius and sideways rain (as I have on more than one occasion) a bit of practical knowledge will definitely increase your prospect of making it home alive. I would recommend understanding all the important stuff if only to avoid making a phone call home to request a rescue; apart from anything, mobile phone reception on your average Cumbrian hillside is sketchy at best. 

And phoning for help is never a good look.

But you don’t necessarily have to understand the physics, the mechanics, and the dynamics of what makes your bike, your bike. 

Unless you want to, of course.



Posted in bike maintenance | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Cycling and Sea Bass

I’m no fisherman.

The extent of my fishing experience extends to a childhood spent dredging the canal with a net and hoping for sticklebacks, and one teenage afternoon at the local river with a split cane rod and a bag of worms. Looking back, I can’t honestly say that on either of these occasions I felt any kind of communion with nature or achieved the kind of zen-like inner calm that many fishing fans talk about.

As regular readers will know, my time is taken up with a full-time job, a family life, and as many hours as I can possible justify riding my beloved bike. Leaving little time for fishing. Or anything else for that matter.

Luckily, I have never had any real desire to go fishing. To my mind, fishing falls into the same category as golf; I don’t doubt that many people get a lot of pleasure, camaraderie, and good honest fresh air from these pursuits, but they’re not for me. 

So why am I rattling on about fishing, you might be asking?

A Smallmouth Bass (Image: Public Domain - United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

A Smallmouth Bass
(Image: Public Domain – United States Fish and Wildlife Service)


As a cyclist, the beauty of living here in Lancaster in the north of England is the sheer variety of truly great cycling roads (ok, so sometimes the road surface itself leaves a bit to be desired, but the landscape is hard to beat). 

We’ve got quiet and traffic free lanes, great swathes of rolling salt-flat farmland, and testing climbs out through the Forest of Bowland, and across into Yorkshire and Cumbria. We’ve also got a windy and dramatic coastline giving you the chance to blow away the cobwebs and breathe in some salty sea air.

From Lancaster I often follow the line of Morecambe Bay out to Arnside and Sandside, and spot the fishermen who line the tidal inlet at the Kent Channel. If you happen to ride past when the tide is in, you’ll see a whole rogues gallery of old boys lined up against the railings; rods in their hands and smiles on their faces. I have an old friend who regularly heads out to this spot, rod and tackle over his shoulder, telling me he’s off to catch Sea Bass. 

He’s something of a wise old sage is my friend, and he clearly loves the ritual involved in all this; getting his bait prepared, polishing his rod…


Look, I have no idea what the ritual is – as I’ve explained, I don’t fish – but whatever it is that these people do to get ready for a day spent dangling a worm into the water, he loves it. 

He also loves sharing a bit of quality time with his mates. I have a mental image of him and his fellow fishing types reeling in great hulking Bass, and filling their home freezers with plentiful supplies; I imagine they smirk at the rest of us who pay over the odds for this privilege of eating this fine fish.

A couple of old boys fishing (Image: fieldsofview Flickr CC)

A couple of old boys fishing
(Image: fieldsofview Flickr CC)


One day, I asked my friend all the questions that a non-fisherman can think of when quizzing a fisherman: How many do you usually catch? What’s the biggest Sea Bass you’ve ever landed? How on earth do you fit them all in your freezer?

To which he answered, with a glint in his eye, “Sea Bass? Haven’t caught one yet, lad”.

“But I thought you said you came out this way to fish for Sea Bass?” I replied.

“I do lad, but I never said I caught any”.

To these boys, whether they actually land one of these semi-mythical sea-dwellers is incidental; they’ll still come out here and spend some time, crack a few jokes, and no-one need mention the lack of fish for fear of breaking the spell. Just because my friend has never caught a Sea Bass, doesn’t mean he isn’t a Sea Bass fisherman.

Who knows, maybe when I reach their age I’ll have moved on from pedalling my way from café to café via the hills and valleys of Lancashire, and taken up fishing? Or maybe golf? 

But I doubt it. 



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The Cycling Nemesis

I have a nemesis. 

At least I think I do. Either that, or there is a fellow cyclist out there who coincidentally happens to ride on exactly the same roads as me at random occasions during the week, and then proceeds to overtake me with a ‘whoosh’ of expensive bike, and disappears off into the distance with alarming ease.

I suppose that’s entirely possible, but I like the nemesis storyline.

Although I’m no slouch, this guy appears over my shoulder and is past me before I can react. I’m pretty sure he usually grunts something in my direction, but it’s entirely possible it might be a grunt of mild surprise coming from me as this prime athlete appears in my peripheral vision and has gained ten metres before I can offer so much as an “‘ow do mate” (that’s the standard greeting in these parts). 

This lack of human contact is all part of the problem, you see, and is what has caused him

Artist's impression of my nemesis: nameless, featureless and enigmatic (Image: pixabay.com)

Artist’s impression of my nemesis: nameless, featureless and enigmatic
(Image: pixabay.com)

to gain nemesis status in my over-active imagination. If he were to sneak up on me and exchange even the briefest of pleasantries before demonstrating his physical dominance we would have an altogether different relationship; as it is, he remains an enigmatic, nameless, faceless, personality-less cyclist.

To coin a phrase: half man half bike.

There is perhaps one glaring hole in my description of him as a nemesis. The definition of a nemesis is of an opponent that you can’t beat or overcome – so far so good – but this assumes that some kind of struggle has taken place in order to confirm that fact. When we two meet out on the roads of Lancashire, take it from me: only one of us is struggling.

So who is he? What does he look like? Perhaps there are cyclists all over Lancashire being systematically emasculated by this phantom menace? 

Having only ever seen the back of him it’s hard to say. I’ve noticed that he has a habit of half glancing back once he’s gained those initial five metres just to see if I’ve jumped onto his back wheel; if only mate.

Truth is, if I knew he was coming I could jump onto his wheel (whether I could hold it for more than a couple of miles is another matter), but the surprise element catches me out. He sneaks up so quietly that he’s past me and away before I can say ‘wheelsucker’.


Image: pixabay.com

Image: pixabay.com

Now, at some point in every ride I’m occasionally overcome by that unexplainable feeling that someone is behind me – a cyclist – and I’ll glance back in casual fashion in the hope of catching him sneaking up on me. But so far, nothing. Once I’ve switched off mentally and I’m busy mulling over the relative merits of some potential bike related purchase, or I’m watching the cows munch grass in the nearby fields and wondering if they ever get bored of it, before I know it he’s there, he grunts at me (I think), then he’s gone!

“DAAAMMMNNN YOOOUUU!” I want to scream. 

I never do.

I expect he pops up on all the local top-tens on Strava under some enigmatic pseudonym like ‘PM’ (phantom menace – see what I did there?), or ‘Bridley Waggins’, or maybe he preserves his cloak of anonymity by steering well clear of social media of all descriptions and exists only in the paranoid delusions of the likes of me. 

More likely, he’s probably a really nice bloke who’s just genuinely very quick on the bike, and all this hand-wringing on my part is a simple reflection of some (not so well) hidden persecution complex. But I’ll stick to the nemesis theory. 

It helps with the motivation and makes my mid-week rides more interesting.



Posted in real life cycling | 4 Comments