John Thorpe's Sponsored Bike Ride 2020 write-up

September 23, 2020


 It's safe to say that so far 2020 has been an extraordinary year, for all the wrong reasons, and one which has tested the patience of the British public as never before. Peoples’ lives have been disrupted  beyond belief, in my opinion, for much darker reasons than most people would believe, but that is something the reader must seek out for themselves, and my purpose here is to recount the event which I thought would not actually take place due to 'circumstances beyond my control'. The official Manchester to Blackpool Bike Ride was scheduled to take place in July, but was postponed until September and then cancelled amid concerns for 'safety'. Don't get me going on that subject please! For this reason it was very difficult to prepare a piece for the Three Owls website as in normal years, since we could not be sure that the event would occur, and I apologise to my readers for this.

            When I knew for a fact that the official event was not going ahead, I had a stark choice, either to abandon it for this year, my 31st consecutive participation in the 60 mile  test of  life, limb and groin, or to go it alone for the sheer hell of it and of course for the benefit of  Three Owls. I chose the latter, and then had to work out a course of action, finally plumping for Sunday the 20th so as to give subscribers, and others the chance to find out about it and decide whether or not to participate. I have already written of my little motorbike reccie of the route prior to the event, and hoped that, on the day, I could find my way reasonably well. You would imagine that after thirty years this would be second nature, but don't forget that we see the route, which isn't always the same, once a year, and have Marshalls, signs and all the infrastructure of the organisers to allow us to concentrate on the riding and not the navigation.

         As usual, I went over the bike from stem to stern, and it was while greasing the axles that a thought occurred to me. Since this doesn't happen very often I paid attention to it and suddenly realised that because the ride was now setting off early in the morning in September, it would not be light, as it would be in July, and I would be riding in the dark for at least an hour and a half. Now I'm not afraid of the dark by any means, but I confess to being distinctly 'windy' about being on the roads in the dark. It's dangerous enough in broad daylight, when you can actually see the potholes, broken glass whacking great cracks in the road surface that delight in buckling wheels and jolting tender parts of the anatomy!

         There is actually a Manchester to Blackpool Night Ride, and I know a few people who've been on it and say it's really exciting. I'm sure they're right, but I'd be a bit concerned about having a puncture or mechanical fault and not being able to see well enough to fix it! Perhaps they have special floodlight units patrolling the route to aid stricken riders! Anyway, my thoughts turned to lighting, and whether or not I had sufficient for safety's sake. The addition of a small but powerful torch strapped to the handlebars, coupled with my existing wind up headlight and rear light promised to be sufficient, and I hoped for the best.

          With military precision I assembled my provisions, tools, spare inner tubes etc etc, and on the  Saturday night even went so far as to put my porridge in a pan in the fridge to save time in the morning!

The alarm was set for 4.00am, and I had an early night, much to the disgust of my two rabbits, who are used to being up until at least midnight! The alarm went off on Sunday morning and I sprung eagerly out of bed (if you'll believe that you'll believe anything!). The animals had to be fed, in the dark, much to their surprise, and I made last minute checks of the tyres, lights and anything could fall off, work loose or explode!

             I left the house at 5.00am sharp and set off, with not a little trepidation, for Manchester, hoping that I didn't get a puncture on the way. Thankfully the day was fine and not too cold, and there was almost no traffic around. It's an odd feeling in a sense, to be absolutely alone in a venture like this, and the sense of personal responsibility is sobering without the back up of the event organisation. A bit like a trapeze act in one sense, the same actions with or without the safety net, but with potentially very different results!

                 When I reached Manchester I headed for Deansgate, which has been blocked off, I believe as part of a grand scheme to make a one way system around the city. From several people I've spoken to, including Nigel, the difficulties in navigating around the city are horrendous, and  I try to avoid it now unless absolutely necessary. I skirted the barriers and carried on down towards the Old Trafford football ground , encountering a rather surprised fox  along the way, who lolloped like a huge hare from the bushes to my left to the centre barrier and sat watching me as I passed with a shocked expression!

        Reaching the football stadium I paused to take a couple of pictures, just to prove I'd actually been there, and set off on what I could remember of our usual route. Now you have to remember, dear reader, that we normally set off in daylight, with lovely Marshalls at every roundabout and junction to avoid any chance of riders getting lost. There were no Marshalls this time, and without labouring the point, I got lost and wasted the best part of an hour trying to find the road to Boothstown! Following the golden rule that anyone you ask for directions is either a stranger to the area, doesn't speak English or hasn't a clue about the area they live in, I drew a blank four times before finding a shop where a very helpful young man directed me back to the Trafford Centre and a road sign which I'd missed when I first passed it!

            As you can imagine, by this time, my nerves and confidence were a bit strained, and I was very glad to be on a road I recognised at last. Leigh, Atherton, Aspull and Haigh Hall were now the targets, and thankfully as the sun came up I could dispense with the lights, which had served their purpose well. I got to Haigh Hall at  9.15 and had a twenty minute break .It was very tempting to rest for longer, but given that I'd already wasted an hour, it was perhaps better to move on. The Covid-19 parking sign amused me no end. Not only do we supposedly have a virus that can count how many people are in a room, can leave people alone up until 10.00 o'clock and then go ballistic at the stroke of ten, but now owns a car! Clearly the pandemic business is paying dividends - for some.

           The day was shaping up nicely, and the sun lifted my spirits, as it never fails to do. I sometimes wonder if I have reptile ancestry, as I seem to come to life in the sun! Given that I had barely been on the bike in the intervening twelve months, the legs seemed to remember what they were supposed to do and I settled into an easy pedalling routine. The miles  clocked up as Standish, Coppull, Whittle -le-Woods and Bamber Bridge came and went, and  the last two were a deviation from the normal route, since I decided to make up a bit of time by  taking a slightly more direct route. I got into Preston and looked for the signs for the docks area, which seemed to be thin on the ground. I eventually found one and gratefully followed it, only to find that the signs ran out! There does seem to be a feeling in this country that as long as we put one sign up, people will inherently know the way when they come to a road junction!

            More by luck than judgement I arrived at the docks, and gratefully got off the bike to find a waiting ice cream van. Now my body is a temple (albeit ruined and full of monkeys!) but on this occasion I gave in to temptation and ordered a large cone with a flake and every  variety of sticky sauce I could think of - I'd be lying if I said it didn't taste really good! I had a twenty five minute break and then pressed on, going north. I had the intention of going to Kirkham, then Freckleton and round the coast road to Lytham and Blackpool, and stopped to ask a couple of other riders for directions to Kirkham. I knew exactly where I was, you understand, but was just getting a second opinion! They directed me down a long and delightful country road, looking for a post office and a signpost to the elusive Kirkham. After what seemed like hours, but thankfully wasn't, I found the  post office and the sign, and set off full of new found confidence. Eventually the road joined another and  I inspected the signpost opposite, only to find that it pointed to Kirkham being down the road I had just travelled on! At this point I gave up the idea of finding the lost city of Kirkham, which had undoubtedly been transported to another dimension, and altered my route to take in some of the beautiful little Fylde villages. We used to use this route years ago on the official ride, and I've always regretted that they changed the route.

        The sun was now well and truly up and the fields were vivid green with a stunning blue sky above. At times like this, my mind turns to the England between the wars, when cycling was incredibly popular and we still had so much of the traditional countryside left. There are still places like the Fylde, where it's possible to imagine what it was like, and to experience the exhilaration of the open road and the sun on your back. In one of the villages, where I stopped for a quick drink from my water bottle, I watched two Wood Pigeons on the pavement opposite me. One flapped and jumped up, as if about to take off, but came to the earth again, only to do the same rather awkward motion again two or three times. At this point I was wondering if it was injured, and what, if anything I could do if it was, when the other bird did exactly the same thing. Shortly after, they both took off and flew to a nearby bush. Obviously they weren't injured, and the only explanation I could think of was that they were performing a courtship dance, albeit one I hadn't witnessed before. Nigel informs me that it's the equivalent of Mrs Woodpigeon saying 'jump' and her partner saying 'How high?"

          The bike and I rolled on through   Woodplumpton, Inskip and Crossmoor, and it was as I rounded a bend that I felt the ominous  repeated rumbling sound from the back wheel that every cyclist dreads- yes, the tell tale sound of a puncture. I had taken several spares inner tubes just in case, and thankfully it didn't take too long to accomplish the switch. To be fair, one puncture in a trip of this length isn't bad, and after the luck I had last year with  them it was getting off distinctly lightly!   

              Elswick was next, another lovely little place, and I thought, as I passed through, how different it would look in the depths of Winter, with ice and snow. There are compensations to living in these places but also difficulties at times. I was very conscious of time now, since I had my friends Les and Jon waiting for me in Blackpool and I was annoyed at running late. Thankfully, a local informed me that the main road to Blackpool was just beyond Great Eccleston, and I carried on through the beautiful square there. It really is stunning and like a chocolate box image of an old village. I believe the village has a long history and a very close knit community, and I can easily understand why anyone would chose to live there,

            Blackpool now beckoned, and I was making good time, even though the traffic was quite heavy in places. I pulled in for a drink stop and saw, approaching in the distance, two horse drawn racing 'sulkies'. I just managed to get the tablet out in time to grab a couple of photos as they trotted by, followed by a long line of slow moving cars! Eventually there was a  sign for Blackpool, which I naturally followed ,and then found myself on a road to Thornton  Cleveleys and Fleetwood! Obviously Fleetwood was just a bit too far north, but I reasoned that I'd be able to pick up the road to Blackpool at Thornton. I'd gone out of my way again, inadvertently and finally got into Blackpool, looking for the South Shore. It seemed to be a day for unfortunate signage related incidents, since when I followed one for the South Shore it led me through a housing estate! I joined the Squires Gate Drive and after negotiating a seemingly endless array of traffic lights (is Blackpool the traffic light capital of the UK?!), all on red, I joined the seafront and finally met up with Les Horton and Jon Chaston, who'd been waiting for me so long they'd both celebrated birthdays and grown luxuriant beards, as well as exchanging their entire life stories!

          It was four o'clock, the weather was glorious on the seafront and I was surprised to find that I actually felt great after eleven hours in the saddle. A passing holidaymaker obliged by taking the picture of the three of us with the Sunday newspaper (proof of the date!)and we found a little  cafe and  indulged in a meal with some of the best tasting tea I've had for a long time. I'm not sure what the iron content of tea is without Googling it, but I had a craving for tea which lasted until the next day. I only realised how much this kind of effort takes out of the body in terms of iron after I went to a blood donors session a couple of years ago, shortly after the ride, and was turned down due to the  lack of iron in my blood sample. Ever since, I've made sure that I replenish the iron, usually with medicinal doses of Guinness, but tea will do at a pinch!

        In spite of the 'scenic detours' (appalling navigational errors!) I'm happy with the fact that I survived Manchester in the dark, and that I did make it under my own steam. What it did show was that we often take for granted the contribution that others make, for example the people who staff the event every year, and it's a great reality check to take sole responsibility for making the trip.

 I should take this opportunity to thank my friend Les Horton, former Chair of the Romany Society, for his valiant efforts in meeting me in Blackpool, providing the chippy tea and running me home afterwards. Not that I couldn't have cycled back but one doesn't like to brag too much, it makes others feel inferior! Thanks also to Jon Chaston for waiting for me with Les. The sun and the passing girls must have been hell but someone had to do it! Jon was going to cycle to Preston, meet me there and come back to Blackpool but he didn't want to make me feel inferior!

 This is my 31st consecutive trip, albeit an unofficial one, and I hope you've enjoyed my tale of the journey, warts and all. The total distance travelled was 89.6 miles. If you feel moved to support our fund raising efforts this year, we would be very grateful for your help, and I live in hopes that the event will take place in 2021.

Please send any sponsorship monies you can spare via the Donate button on this Website; Nigel informs me we have just passed the £200 mark so far, which is very humbling for my sole efforts this year. Whether we can get anywhere near the £1370 of previous years is yet to be seen, but you can be assured that Three Owls will be very grateful for ANY amount we can send their way, to assist them in their much-needed work with the birds. We will keep the fund running until the end of this year.

John Thorpe


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