A Grand Day Out
Words and photos: Christian Gallagher
Spring arrived abruptly in England this year, on the heels of equally sudden snowstorms. Then summer clobbered both with high-20s temperatures, and is still strutting around – shirt off, red-faced and picking fights with strangers – while we rejoice and swiftly indulge our passions. Some opt for beer garden sunstroke, others jump aboard their motorbikes, wanting nothing more than to rip up all the breathtaking rural roads they can find.
For the Sideburn-HebTroCo rideout (HebTroCo is the Hebden Bridge Trouser Company) we find plenty such roads. Around sixty or eighty bikes turn out, meeting at the New Delight Inn at Blackshaw Head, West Yorkshire – high in the Pennines, right on the border with Lancashire and about as uphill as you can get without becoming dizzy. I arrive early to get the opportunity to look around the bikes and chat to their riders: the fine day has everybody in high spirits and looking forward to the ride. Well, nearly everybody – Will and Paul, riding the hardtails Norton and Honda CB500T respectively – are uncertain as to how much of an impact (literally) their unsprung bikes will have on their backsides and loins. Both are cheerful about it, and joke about consuming handfuls of pre-emptive painkillers, with the nervous air of entrenched soldiers arranging a drink back home when the war is over. But these bikes are causes are worth dying for: the uncluttered, magneto-equipped Norton “doesn’t have any wiring, except to the coil”, Will tells me. It’s as sleek and purposeful as a crouching cat, the hardtail frame offset with a bit of padding and modern running gear. Paul’s Honda is graced with a headlight but it’s equally clean and devoid even of a seat, wearing only a strip of black cloth to hide its nakedness. I mention to Paul that I liked the rear brake set-up – the pedal pivots straight on the brake actuator, with no linkage. “It’s the only place it’d fit”, he tells me, “your toes point down when you’re riding and it’d be on the floor otherwise. It doesn’t half work when you put your heel on it.”
Gary Inman of Sideburn and Ed Oxley of HebTroCo have set out their wares under a gazebo, whose smooth white shade soon fills with bacon sandwich-munching bikers, milling around and checking everything out. Spoilt for choice, I ask Gary which edition of Sideburn he’s most proud of and buy a copy, as a well-rusted, ancient Mobylette moped pulls in and draws more attention than the blinged-up, full-dress Harleys. I love this scene – there’s a KZ650 chop in the 80s British style, with lowered seat rails and a small, skinny homemade seat that sets the rider low behind the tank with knees bent upwards, wearing pod filters on its old-school slide carbs, and period piggyback shocks – it reminds me off the stuff I used to see as a kid. There are CCM supermotos, built just over the hill in Bolton, and older British bikes. Modern retros are represented by the ubiquitous T100s and another W650. I’ve tumbled Alice-like into my perfect bike world. Better yet, I fit right in.
Midday comes with a call to action: chins are wiped of ketchup, cups of tea are dutifully drained and bikes are fired up. No orchestra of engines would be complete without the aggressive bass of open pipes among the muted tones of the modern instruments, and the rising crescendo could not be a better soundtrack to this departure. Still, the English habit – “no really, after you” – prevails, as we politely take turns to pull out of the car park and swarm noisily around on the road outside. I manage to leave early in the pack – close to the front and the faster bikes – and we speed off to The Long Causeway: a fast, deserted road whose emptiness makes me wonder how long this stretch has lain in silence before we came along and shattered it. The faster bikes take off, like hounds after the hare, and I nail the W as hard as I dare on its squared-off rear tyre, which twitches and kicks back on the patchy surface of the road. We’re up among the wind towers, their giant propellers rotating with immense calm as we hasten across the last land before the sky.
The occasional walkers we pass stop and most wave, receiving horn-beeps of greeting, as their open-mouthed kids look on. Thus – spellbound by noise, clamour and speed – is the next generation of bikers made. Childhood experiences like these, I’m sure, are what turns people on to bikes: I used to sit with a couple of friends at the junction at the top of the street where I grew up, waiting for the next bike to come flying past so we could gawp at it, before going home to play with my Evel Knievel toy (which crashed every time, just like the real thing).
After each stretch, we arrive at a junction and the whole pack bottles up. We nod and grin at each other before slipping out and away one by one, like parachutists tumbling from a plane into the wind and sunshine. I can honestly say that at this moment I don’t care about anything but this ride. Ed Oxley of HebTroCo is local to this area and has planned the route, though if I didn’t know better I’d swear it was actually a ruse to get an entire squadron of bikers impossibly lost in the Pennines, never to be seen again. We take in the tiniest roads, along which we flow in single file across undulating hillsides, which themselves form just part of one side of an immense moor. From time to time we spill out onto a faster road – off go the hound-pack at the front – and speeds increase to 80mph or more, before slowing at another near-invisible junction and disappearing once more down a hidden lane, narrow as a rabbit hole.
One feature of riding over these moors is that you don’t see a town coming until you’re in it. You cross high, empty vistas, raised almost to the sky, then the road starts to drop. It drops more, and suddenly drops a lot and you’re down to second gear, off the front brake and restraining gravity’s pull with the rear, leaning back equestrian-style to descend lanes that follow streams that wind down past trees and cottages. Abruptly, the tarmac levels out, as dry stone walls give way to fences and houses and before you know it you’re sat at traffic lights, next to a pub, with eyes still full of sky and the bike panting beneath you. This is how we arrive in Skipton, our fuel stop. For the last mile or so I’ve been watching the guy on a brat style Honda in front of me taking joyous swoops at every bend, and I realise that he and his companions weren’t at the New Delight for departure, and have joined us somewhere on the way. Various fluids nourish bikes and riders and we’re off again, losing a few of our number, who beep-beep their farewells as they take their respective roads home. Weaving through and out of town, we pick up a steep incline and perform the reverse of our descent. We climb so rapidly that I can feel the change in altitude in the roof of my mouth. I pull myself forward over the tank, and push the W harder. Suddenly, with a tangible pop like the piercing of the valley’s bubble, we crest the final rise and find ourselves once more among the clouds.
Having set off from the western edge of West Yorkshire, we’re now heading back east, towards the area I know well and ride often. When we left the New Delight, I could barely believe that I could live for so many years just thirty miles away and not know these roads, but such is the character of this part of the country. It folds in on itself, hidden from the casual gaze. From the towns in its creases the open land above cannot be seen, and the map doesn’t do it justice – stretched out and laid flat it would be twice its apparent size. You couldn’t explore it on a Fireblade: it’d wreck your wrists and your back, and you’d never get out of second gear. Besides, you miss the scenery and the feeling of space when your nose is rammed in the clocks of a sportsbike. But given the right bike and an area spanning only twenty or so miles in a straight line, you could spend a year’s worth of Sundays exploring every side road and lane, every twist of the landscape, and still not get everywhere, not least because you’d want to stop so often.
Emerging from a side road, I realise that we’re on the B6265 from Grassington to Pateley Bridge, on the stretch where I once all but wrote off my Hinckley Tiger. Climbing to the east, it’s hard to believe that Leeds, Bradford, the M62 and the endless sprawling conurbation that surrounds it are just a fast half-hour to the south. These hills are green, immense and rounded, nestling side-by-side like peaceful, sleeping beasts, across which the bikes swarm like insects: unnoticed, ever-moving and tiny in relation to our hosts. We race exuberantly over this otherwise deserted landscape, rising and falling with its contours, until we arrive at a mobile cappuccino bar that Gary has arranged, awaiting us in a layby. Will and Paul, the hardtail riders I spoke to back at the pub, are maintaining a brave face over the agony of their internal organs but are clearly elated to have made it halfway around the route and find themselves still able to stand upright. I’m equally pleased, simply to have kept up with the front of the pack all the way here. The ride is set to continue up to Greenhow Village, then to turn south to the charmingly-named Blubberhouses, crossing one of the most spectacular moors in the region – mile after mile of 360-degree views – before turning back to the west and riding into the late afternoon sun to return to the New Delight and the night’s festivities. I leave them at Blubberhouses on the A59, beep-beeping a farewell to a new bunch of friends, and pull in the clutch on the W, slowing a little to watch them thunder along the valley toward a steep V-shaped channel cut long ago by the stream that still runs by the road. Taking a left, I climb another moor to the south and in a moment we are all gone, leaving the timeless land to rest as evening approaches.
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