Spending time on a mountain bike is not just hobby for me. It’s not just a way to keep a dress size. It’s a way of life. A way into life and a connection to people, places and myself.
And as we rode the gently meandering Cinder Track at Robin Hoods’s Bay I was looking for exactly that.
The track itself is an old railway line, with a cinder ballast instead of coal. Reclaimed by the council it was transformed into a recreational cycling route which runs between the east coast seaside towns of Whitby and Scarborough. I’ll be honest, it’s boring, and harder work than it should be (or perhaps an excess of mince pies was weighing heavy on my centre of balance). So, as my tyres crushed the brittle cinders I was looking for meaning, thinking of sparks, embers and pantomimes.
I first rode this track in 2015. We had reached the end of a six day journey from St Bee’s on the west coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east. It was the least scenic part of a ride that had crossed three national parks – the hard way. And for the final few glory miles we were given dull sanitised trail lined by shrubs that hid the coast and cliffs we had spent six days imagining.
But I was glad for it. I was glad it was flat and predictable. And I think my companions were too. The effort was over. I took my phone from my pocket and snapped my companions in a line ahead of me, pedalling away. We were drying to salty crisps after traversing the North York Moors in torrential rain, gouging clay from between our tyres and frames as it choked our wheels to a standstill. We were fatigued from back to back days of testing terrain. We were ready to be able to say, ‘yes, we did it.’ We pedalled those boring miles with light hearts.
I want to say it was the first trip like that for me. But that would not be strictly true, it just felt that way. Perhaps what is true is that if journeys are inspired and honestly imagined then they always feel like the first time. I had seen the wildness of a country I took for-granted, I had begun to believe things I could not have believed without proof; I could endure, I was strong enough. And I did this with comrades at my side.
For as long as I can remember I have craved connection and meaning, often finding both elusive. But for those six days, I had it.
I was not ready for the emptiness that swelled up as I dipped my bike wheel in the sea on the cobbled launch. It was hard to participate in the flurry of photographs. Having reached my destination, I was lost.
There is an image that pops up on the digital photo frame at home, even now. Our faces peering into shot. My skin is pale and drawn and there is a rueful smile on my face.
‘Perhaps we should pedal back to St Bee’s now,’ one of us said. I knew my sadness was shared.
That night, by the light from the windows of The Bay Hotel we committed the final act. We collected a pebble from the beach, a select one to partner with the one taken from St Bee’s. As we worked silently beneath the clear pin prick stars, fingers dug into damp sand, I found that connection again, just for a moment.
A lot has happened since 2015 and the dark inauspicious grains of the Cinder Track are a reminder.
From the moment I walked into our house and began to organise and clean I began to mourn the passing of our journey. I became preoccupied with losing what we had all shared. When the reality was less clear: I had already lost it, the moment I set foot on that launch AND (at the same time) no-one could take it away from me.
But I had yet to accept that and in time my fear of loss and my determination to chase something, even if it was the wrong thing, took me on many other adventures. I watched the sun rise above Holy Island, staggered my way up an Italian col famished and exhausted after 10 hours in the 30 degree heat. My eyes have streamed in the smoke of a log fire that threatened to gutter and die in a Welsh bothie and I have shivered in a butchery shed in the Great Wilderness of the Scottish Highlands, trapped by water with no idea of how to escape. And just this year I’ve heard the rain patter on my fine tarp as I rolled over at 4am in a field just south of Elterwater and sipped liquorice tea as the sun catches the ripples on Lake Coniston.
There have been sharp instants and periods of sustained effort that have stripped me to the bone, so that I know who I am, the good, the bad and the ugly. There have been moments of elation and devastating disappointment. And pain. And it all passes.
Cinderella roughly translated is ‘Little Ashes’. Dirty hearth sweepings. Embers. Combustible matter that has stopped giving off flames, but within which energy still lives. A spark, that could give life to something new. And my experiences on a bike – the people, the places, the struggle, the surmounting – don’t seem so different. They’re burnt out as soon as they’ve happened. Ferocious and intense and unbearable. Then nearly gone, residing only in my head, my heart and my muscles, with just enough warmth to spark off the next adventure. And, if I think about them like that, it helps me realise I just have to let them go.