The climb of Birdy Brow sounds innocuous, or even cuddly. Any cyclist from Lancashire will tell you it’s anything but.
The other morning I found myself, in time honoured fashion, preening around the house half-kitted out for a bike ride (bib-shorts, base layer – not yet committed to which jersey I’ll wear), and mulling over my third cup of coffee. This is the tried and tested method for channelling the inner ‘route-master’ and selecting which direction to ride and which climbs are on the cycling menu today.
“Birdy Brow”, I thought, in a light-bulb moment.
Birdy Brow is a very well-known climb in these parts. The gradient tops out around 20%, and it has long sections in excess of 15%, but it’s only a mile or so in length.
I’m not sure why this particular Lancashire legend popped into my mind, but it occurred to me I hadn’t ridden it for about three years and it’s about time. I have a vague memory of brushing it off as nothing special last time I rode it, and denouncing it’s fearsome reputation as simply myth and bluster.
“How hard can it really be? I’ll have a proper crack at it today”, I thought.
“Birdy Brow? Pah!”
Can you see where this is going?
After riding for 30 miles in the right general direction and relying on a hazy memory as to exactly where the foot of the climb lies, the familiar junction – on a blind bend in a dip in the road – presented itself, and all the features of Birdy Brow came flooding back.
Firstly, the junction.
Negotiating the turn-off safely negates any run-up you might get, and so the steep lower slopes require all but a standing start. “It’s only a short burst though”, I reminded myself, and attacked in the highest gear I dared.
Secondly, the patches of sketchy tarmac, well past their best, demand that you pick a meandering route and power across the worst bits. When tarmac is smooth and pristine it’s possible to get a rhythm even on the steepest of climbs (and I am a cyclist who appreciates a rhythm), but when it’s rough and ready it feels like the road is in control.
Next comes a hairpin bend, with a definite suggestion of a summit just around it. Obviously the summit is not there. By this point I am breathing so heavily, mouth hanging open and gasping, that I am disturbing the ramblers and picnic eaters with the sheer volume of my effort.
I now realise I went off too fast.
At just the moment when a bit of respite would have been welcomed comes the difficult psychology of a long, straight, steep section. To see the road stretching out ahead leaves no room for the imagination to break the climb down to the next bend, the next dip, or the next rise.
“Just focus on the tarmac under your front wheel”, I thought, “and for goodness sake keep the noise down”.
At one point Birdy Brow offers the dubious pleasure of, if not quite a false flat, then an easing of the gradient. I clicked up through the gears optimistically searching for momentum, and found none.
I was reduced to a low-geared crawl even on the shallowest section of this terrible climb, catching some – not all – of my breath.
Today I will not be setting a quick time.
The final pull features the last memorable moment: a second false summit. Or perhaps I imagined this one, in the manner of a desperate desert traveller spotting a mirage on the horizon?
That’s quite possible, as by this point I am slightly spaced out and I think I’ve got a sore throat.
There is no doubting that I went off too quickly, and my vague memories of Birdy Brow as being nothing more than a short sharp pull up a hillside are a mystery.
It is less short and more sharp than I remember, let’s put it that way.
Birdy Brow is not the most difficult climb in the world – it’s not even the most difficult in Lancashire – but don’t let the cutesy name lull you into a false sense of security.
I’ll come back and do it properly next time, and I’ll show it a bit more respect.