Yorkshire and Lancashire border with Hamish Graham and Ian Wilkinson
Yorkshire and Lancashire border with Hamish Graham and Ian Wilkinson
You know what it's like when someone tells you that you can't do something, or that you're rubbish?" teenager Hamish Graham says when I ask him why he went to Belgium to race in 2011, when he's far from well-known in the UK.
He did OK though. Yes, he got his head kicked in at first: "I think I lasted 40 kilometres in my first race," he says. "It was for under-23 riders, but with a good field on a twisting route, with corners every 100 metres. It was sprint, brake, sprint, brake. Not like anything I'd done before. I won something, though, I got a free lettuce for signing on. The second race was a kermesse on a 10km circuit with four corners, I lasted 80km," he continues.
It was his first senior year, Graham only had two years' experience as a junior, and that was largely limited to racing in the north-west. Belgium is a hard school. From racing against weekend warriors with full-time jobs, plus a few local elites looking for a workout, Graham found himself up against small-town heroes, who all want a pro contract and will trample over anyone to get it.
But his head didn't drop once, and that's important. "It was a while before I finished a race, then I managed it, then I started going up the list and ended up getting in the prizes," he explains.
That was the story when he started racing. "I did a lot of cycling. My parents are cyclists and I went from kiddie seat to kiddie cranks on the tandem, to my own bike, going touring with them. I loved it. I love riding my bike and even did a 100-mile sportive when I was 15. I didn't really want to race, though, because I was a bit chubby when I was young and I was self-conscious about it.
"But all the family were BC members, for the insurance, so one day I picked up the BC handbook and saw that there were a lot of junior races around where we live. I thought, why not, and I entered one. I got dropped at 10 miles, but I carried on to the finish. I did that every time, getting dropped a bit further into the race but carrying on to the end. Then I finished one, and the week after that I finished a few places higher. I never went backwards, I kept finishing higher and higher each week until I won the last race of the year," he says.
Graham's attitude forces admiration. It's certainly not lost on Endura pro Ian Wilkinson, who lives a couple of miles away and is a regular training partner. "It's not easy taking a kicking on the bike," he says. "But Hamish is learning, and credit to him, he went to Belgium and got faster. You get out of cycling what you put in, you can't fake it. He's just got to keep trying and not be soft," Wilkinson says.
There's no danger of that. Graham will be back in Belgium this year. "In April this time, instead of May, and I just want to keep improving and see how far I can go. I've worked hard this winter, taking the advice of a Belgian coach. I was strong when I went. I'd done the miles over here, but the racing there needs a different kind of strength. To keep sprinting out of corners you've got to be more explosive, zippier than I was when I arrived, and this coach got me riding at much higher cadences than I'm used to. Basically, around here, high cadence means staying in the little ring all the time," he says.
We've picked a nice day. It's cold, with frost dusting the Dales so they look like a tray of iced buns. No time for hanging about, so Graham and Wilkinson get down to it, making light of a few ice patches, occasionally taking to the verges to get round them.
They are both going well, Graham is sprightly on the hills and sprinting out of every corner, but Wilkinson has seen it all before. He's in a full-time pro phase of his bike-racer-turned- builder-turned-bike-racer story, and life is good.
"Yeah, I'm OK with Endura. It's good being a full-time racer again. I mean, I could be out laying bricks for eight hours in this. Instead I'm doing a nice bike ride. The team had a good year. We've made some good signings, so I think we'll have another one. Endura are ambitious, the team is there to help them open new markets in Europe, but they want to ride bigger races. We maybe need another main sponsor for that, but with cycling having such a great profile at the moment in Britain, you never know. Look at that Team NetApp - we were riding with them last year, and we were as good as them. Now they are doing the Giro," he says.
Dog and bone
The ride is shaped like a cartoon dog bone. It starts with a little undulating loop then follows the Ribble valley up to Settle, where there's another little loop before returning along the other side of the river.
"I've done it for years. It's a basic ride that I can jump on my bike and do without thinking, but look at the scenery," Graham says proudly. It is stunning, with Pen-y-ghent dominating the skyline east of Settle, and the other two Three Peaks, Ingleborough and Whernside, looming out of the mist behind the busy town.
Graham will forsake this for Oudenaarde in the spring. "I started by staying with a family, but I moved into another place where this guy has converted a shed into accommodation for cyclists. Daniel Patten stayed there, and Al Murison and Emma Trott while I was there." And he's looking to improve.
He will do too. Graham's progress underlines what Wilkinson says about cycling; you do only get out of it what you put in. The key is dogged determination in the knowledge that you will progress if you keep going, but you won't if you stop.
"I never thought of coming home - even when I took a hammering, I enjoyed every minute of it. I didn't win, but I didn't come home with my tail between my legs, and I think a lot of people thought I would. I'm proud of that," says Graham. And so he should be.
Philosophy: "Go hard or go home"
Riding the Ribble Valley
The Ribble, along with the smaller river Wenning, which rises partly in the Dales and partly in the Bowland hills, forms a wide, flat valley that separates the hills of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
It's full of interesting villages, quiet, undulating and sometimes hilly lanes and edged with big, spectacular hills. All you need is a map and a sense of direction, and there are miles of idyllic countryside to explore.
In a quirk of geology the Ribble valley narrows as it crosses into Lancashire, and the roads in the Gisburn area become quite hilly. Wilkinson reckons that the villages here have "a definite Ribble valley character", which he says is a good thing. The area is called Pendle and dominated by the vast bulk of Pendle Hill. There's a nice ride around its base, or if you fancy a challenge you can go up and over it via the Nick of Pendle pass.
Start in Earby and head north on A56. Turn left at the top of the hill in Thornton-in-Craven towards Barnoldswick but take the first right. Turn right on A682 then first left and follow signs to Wigglesworth.
Fork left when through the village and follow the road to Giggleswick and Settle. Once in Settle, keep the Ribble on your right and head north on the unclassified road that parallels the B road to Helwith Bridge. Turn left to Austwick. Turn left, cross A65 and on to Sway Beck, where turn right to climb onto Giggleswick Common.
Descend to Rathmel, turn right again and climb up another loop, taking first lefts until you are back in Wigglesworth. Retrace earlier leg but go straight on to Paythorne. Turn left on A682 then right to Barnoldswick and back to Earby.