There are two ways to deal with the end of summer and the prospect of riding through autumn and winter before light returns to the world again in spring.
One is to hide away, to ride your bike grudgingly, if at all. Shackle yourself to the turbo trainer and give yourself a hard time when you miss a session. Grouse and grumble as if everything’s the weather’s fault. The other is to embrace the waning of the year, and all the changing seasons throw at you. Keep riding because you can, to snatch one more… and one more… and one more good day outside from the jaws of winter to come; keep riding because you’re strong after a summer’s endeavour and because you know that every kilometre logged now is one closer to good form for the warmer months on the other side.
Guess which one we chose…
In the UK autumn (or ‘fall’ as it is called in the US) is a season of tempests and turning leaves. Foggy mornings, bright afternoons and chill dusks, greens, yellows, reds and browns, and temperamental, unpredictable conditions. It’s when the prevailing wind from the south-west reasserts itself, a wet, gusty wind from the Atlantic. It’s after this wind and the storms it brings that the famous Sou’wester fishermen’s oilskin storm hats are named.
To celebrate the changing of the year, and the winds and rain on their way, we travelled to Cornwall, the most south-westerly county of the UK. Our plan: to visit the most southerly and south-westerly points of the UK mainland – Lizard Point and Land’s End – in that order, riding around the tiny, narrow finger of land that sticks out into the Atlantic. So we plotted a route and booked some train tickets to head west.
There was one small impediment on the horizon: ex-Hurricane Gonzalo. The storm that had caused havoc in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean was on its way over and, though it had blown itself out and was no longer dangerous, it still promised to deliver the UK’s first bout of real autumnal weather right around our ride date.
The heart sinks when you wake up to the sound of heavy raindrops, and it was getting worse as we left that morning, the clouds hanging low over the green fields, limiting visibility to 50m or less. As always, the hardest moment is leaving the house and the warmth behind: but you get on with it, tell yourself you’re not made of sugar, that a little water’s not going to do you any harm. We set off into the mist.
Somewhere out in the lanes the rain became drizzle and then stopped, leaving us to concentrate on the roads. We’d already had a good taste of what to expect: lungbusting short, steep hills (“proper job” as they say in Cornwall): sharp descents into tiny little river valleys with picturesque harbours or sheltered coves, and then terrible climbs up and out again. Careful braking coming down, then wheels spinning on the mud and leaves thanks to the harsh upwards gradients.
The clouds lifted a bit and suddenly we could see out across the sparse plateau of Goonhilly Downs, to where the sky was lightening over the sea. We dried out on the way to Lizard Point, where we stopped at the Most Southerly gift shop, but then rode on to face the most difficult part of the day.
For 30km or more the sou’wester was against us and blowing bank after bank of clouds into our faces. Drenching rain, a brief slackening off and then the next squall would hit. St Michael’s Mount, one of the sights of the south coast, stood forlornly across Mount’s Bay as we lined out against the blast. Past there the wind subsided, the road became more sheltered and, by the time we stopped for fish and chips, and to warm ourselves in front of the fire, in a pub just before Land’s End, the sun was peeping through.
Land’s End is important to British cyclists as the start of the iconic Land’s End-John O’Groats route (or the finish, if you’re heading the other way), which links the two extremities of Great Britain. The traditional road route is 874 miles (1,407 km) long and most cyclists take between a week and two weeks to complete it. Land’s End was important to us, however, because it was where the weather turned. We stopped on the cliffs as the sun came out and watched the great Atlantic rollers charge in from America, an unstoppable force hitting the immovable object of the high granite cliffs.
The north coast road that took us back east is one of the UK’s great stretches of tarmac. It rises and tumbles between high moorland, the ruins of Victorian mines and the double blues of the Atlantic and the sky, bathed – if you’re lucky – in the famous light that attracted so many artists to this remote part of England to paint. With the wind behind us and the sun setting on our backs we sped back eastwards.
And, if we stopped in St Ives, the picturesque little fishing town, because we were in danger of missing our train home, then… so what? We’d done 140 tough, hilly kilometres, and cycled through the tail end of (ex-) hurricane Gonzalo. We had nothing left to prove.