When it comes to cycling in Cumbria, it’s a love/hate relationship.
I love the wild and challenging roads and the anti-establishment belligerence of the sheep. I hate its inability to meet recommended minimum quality standards on coffee. I could also live without the incessant rain and the solid uniform of Gore-Tex.
But mainly it’s the coffee.
Three of us headed up there recently with a plan: park up, lay claim to Great Dun Fell and Hartside by bike – two of the jewels in the Cumbrian crown – and get out again without anyone attempting to serve us a “Cappuccino” made with instant granules.
A kind of guerrilla raid, if you will.
Bizarrely, the temperature was 20C, and there was barely a breath of wind. Shorts and short sleeves were worn, a gilet was utilised only for the two big descents, and at no point were my toes or fingers numb.
In what might be a Cumbrian first for me, at no point were the heavens cursed and my survival was never in the balance.
As if to add to the surreal vibe, I was all but surrounded by well-dressed cyclists.
In Cumbria, you see, even if clothing isn’t Gore-Tex it’s resolutely functional. And by functional I mean dull, practical, and eye-bendingly ugly. I get it, of course – Cumbrian weather requires Cumbrian clothing – but it offends my eyes.
Cycling kit is a can of worms at the best of times, even when you’re making the effort.
A kind of Yin to the Yang of the ramblers and fell-walkers, with their Bear Grylls combat pants and his ‘n’ hers fleeces.
And finally, came the piece de resistance. As I stuttered in to the post-ride café, warily, and with a copy of the Trade Descriptions Act to hand, I spotted an espresso machine behind the counter.
I eyed it suspiciously.
Was it for show?
Was there a kettle and a jar of Nescafe, hidden from view, and about to be pressed into service?
I ordered two Cappuccinos, with that raised-at-the-end-inflection which turns “two Cappuccinos please” from a drinks order into an incredulous question.
“Certainly,” replied the man, “I’ll bring ‘em over.”
“Oh dear God,” I said to my fellow cyclists, “what are we about to be served?”
Three minutes later, they arrived. The proper colour, the correct froth, and with a tiny biscotti propped on the saucer. Three cappuccinos. As if whisked in by a Milanese barista on a private plane.
For a moment, I wondered if we’d mistakenly crossed county lines and were currently supping superior coffee in Yorkshire. I looked up, to get my bearings, and my eyes landined on the sign outside the local pub – the Shepherds Arms.
To be met by the gaze of none other than Adolf Hitler.
Fascist, vegetarian, and apparent Cumbrian farmer.
Just when you think you’ve got the measure of this place.