For the past few years, my old boss, John Grimshaw CBE (a larger-than-life figure in every way, hereinafter referred to as Big John) leads a multi-day cycle ride for former employees, friends and supporters harking back to the days when Sustrans was a gung-ho, innovative, campaigning organization. The event even attracts some present members of staff, who are prepared to risk the disapproval of the grey men in grey suits who now control the bloated corporate mainstream monster which the company has now become.
My old friend and former colleague, David, who lives just outside Consett, is charged with organizing the logistics of the event. Up until 2013, it had never been convenient for me to participate for one reason or another, but this year’s was rather different. Entitled “The Pioneers Promenade”, Big John promised that it was going to be the longest flattest ride possible within Great Britain, running from Bangor to Morecambe and making extensive use of seaside proms and seawalls.
At quite short notice, I managed to wriggle out of family commitments and set off by train down to Preston to join the others for the last day and a half of their four-day ride. Our campsite at Warton, to the west of Preston, was not of the best. Normally, David, an ex-rugby player of no mean ability, manages to secure the use of a Rugby Club, or failing that a friendly farmers field. On this occasion, unfortunately, no such opportunity presented itself, and we camped in a large commercial campsite. Our field was adjacent to the clubhouse from which the heavy thump of a country and western band emanated far into the night. The only remedy I could think off was to stick my buds in my ears and crank my MP3 player up to maximum volume. The music was still inordinately loud but at least it was music of my choice.
The final day of the ride presented a problem. Long after the original plans had been laid, it was discovered that the Fleetwood to Knott End Ferry across the mouth of the River Wyre cannot run at low tide, and the last ferry of the Sunday morning was at 10am, necessitating a very early start for us riders.
As the oldest and slowest of the group, I realised that it was incumbent on me to really get a move on, so I rose at 4.30, struck my tent and packed my belongings before moving over to the breakfast area, where because of time limitations, David had declined to prepare his usual steaming vat of porridge. At 6.20 I left the camp ahead of everybody else, just as the car booters were arriving in droves.
I pedalled my way steadily along the main road through the centre of Lytham and St Annes which was absolutely deserted at that time of a Sunday morning. After fifty minutes I reached the Blackpool boundary and climbed up on to the Promenade. I was feeling fairly jaded from a combination of disturbed sleep, early rising and battling into a headwind, and sat down in one of the prom shelters for my favourite pick-me-up, a handful of yoghurt-coated peanuts.
Just as I was finishing my snack, the five members of the Rochdale mob came round the corner and up onto the prom. They called out for me to join them, but didn’t stop to wait for me, so I set off in hot pursuit, just as another gang of five, headed by Big John’s big kid brother, Chris, came into view. The ride along the prom was magnificent – a broad sweeping swooping way adjacent to the Golden Mile, now, after the change of direction, aided by a brisk breeze at my back. Only a small number of early morning joggers and dog walkers were out on what is normally a very crowded strip. I could see the Rochdale mob in front but stood little chance of catching them until eventually they stopped for a breather some distance beyond the Tower on the clifftop prom above the North Shore. As we stood there chatting, Chris’s gang passed us on the lower prom just above the beach. Immediately the Rochdale mob gave chase and I was left to pedal along in their wake as best I could.
After Cleveleys the prom deteriorated from its pristine condition into an ordinary sea wall of corrugated concrete, but the wind was still behind me and I made good progress up to Rossall Point and round to the north of Fleetwood. Two hours and nine minutes after setting out, I arrived at the mouth of the Wyre with one minute to spare for the 8.30 ferry, where the other ten riders were already on board.
After a short crossing we wheeled our bikes up the ramp, our tongues hanging out at the thought of a cooked breakfast at the famous Knott End Café, only to find that they were not due to open until 9.30. Big Chris decided to head on the considerable distance to Glasson Dock which would hopefully provide the next opportunity for refreshment and everybody except myself followed. I considered that I had earned a rest and sat on the sea wall waiting for the remainder of the party. Big John travels with an enormous banner attached to his bike and I could easily identify him arriving, along with the others, at the ferry terminal on the Fleetwood side.
Once we had assembled, we had to sit and wait in a biting wind for twenty minutes until the café opened but the full cooked breakfasts were well worth waiting for. Then it was off again, with Big John in the lead along the narrow seawall with his banner billowing in the wind and flicking the Sunday morning strollers and dog walkers with reckless abandon. After that a section of fairly quiet main road followed before turning off along a marshy muddy track by the shore near Cockerham which reduced our pace considerably. John continued to plough his way along some totally unsuitable tracks, but most of the rest of us rebelled and identified a much easier quiet country road to bring us to Glasson Dock.
Here I was on familiar territory having lived in the area some eleven years ago and led the way along the railway path into the heart of Lancaster and up to the strikingly handsome Millennium Bridge. From there we turned back to the station, where our support minibus and trailer were parked up, for some quick refreshment. At this point, I and the other septuagenarian of the party decided that enough was enough and opted to ride in the minibus for the last leg. Not necessarily the best choice as we got stuck in a nightmarish traffic jam on the Morecambe Road, as the cyclists passed us by at great speed on the railway path immediately below the road.
We all met up at the stone jetty amidst crowds of holiday makers and day trippers who had turned out to view the kite festival on the beach which made a fine sight in the stiffening breeze. The end of a most exhilarating ride.